Monthly Archives: March 2013

Why I am not a fan of this well-written novel

How hopelessness doesn't play in literature - a case study


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I recently finished a new book by a well-known author.1 It was a very different kind of book from what her previous readers would likely expect, a characteristic that particularly intrigued me. I love it when artists break boundaries. I had enjoyed her other books, and I wanted to enjoy this one.

I finished it, and a couple of weeks have gone by. The book was good, and I found it difficult to put down… but I’m not sure that I can say I like it.

Weird, no?

I certainly didn’t dislike it. But the book is different from what I expected.

Not because I was expecting a variation on the earlier work. But rather because this new one is actually quite a dark, angry book, sometimes bleak and frankly cynical.

The narrative is cynical about the behaviors and motivations of all human beings. Under the pretense of honesty, the author portrays all people as weak, cowardly, and entirely self-interested. I use the word “pretense” advisedly. Pop culture finds it “hip” to be dark and nihilistic — I felt this way about The Dark Knight, which I thought was an excellent but depressing movie, and the same thing seems to be happening in the new Kevin Bacon series, The Following — whereas in my opinion, a story doesn’t redeem itself without being redeeming in some way. I’m not saying the author is trying to hook into pop culture, just that her book falls under this wider umbrella of nihilism which has become somewhat pervasive. Portraying the entire human race as either evil, or vapid, is just as unrealistic as painting us all as angels and saints.

During the book’s setup, however, this negative assumption worked well: I read it in the spirit of a farce, perhaps something sharp and biting, like George Bernard Shaw, or Oscar Wilde. But quickly, the humor began to disappear, like water in a leaky watering can.

One character escaped this treatment, I felt: AP, the acne-ridden older son of an abusive, petty criminal father, who is infatuated with the new girl in town. He is a three-dimensional character, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and his personality develops naturally throughout the book. AP doesn’t stand in for a type or an idea; he is his own person.

Also on the positive side, readers of her earlier works will recognize the author’s command of language, particularly dialogue. At the same time, a number of characters were visual “blanks” to me. I was missing details I could hang my hat on. MF, for example. She didn’t even get a personality until the end of the book. Now, that may have been intentional, a literary allusion to the way the community treated her as an icon and an idea. But in that case, I’d rather have her remain entirely characterless the whole way through. But the most egregious example, I think, was the case of KW. What color was her hair? Was she tall? Chubby? No idea. For such a central character, thematically, and for someone with such a large physical presence, I feel this was a huge oversight.

The story is a page-turner. I wanted to know what happened next. That being said, for the most part I found myself so stressed out by the events unfolding in the book that I couldn’t read it before going to bed. I was unable to sleep, I was so on edge.

But my greatest reservation pertains to the negative outlook (drum roll, please) The Casual Vacancy seems to possess regarding human interaction, rather than any literary qualities it displays. I saw virtually no capacity for grace in this novel. The ending lifts… from an annihilating hopelessness we float to a kind of regret… but I didn’t feel a resolution. I felt relief, yes, and a waning of the tension I carried in my body as I had been reading the book, but there wasn’t anything to hang onto. All the social battles framed by the narrative were being lost — but the narrative never went into the arguments for wanting to win them. As a reader, I felt much like the character PJ, who realizes she’s supporting one side of an argument out of habit, personal friendship and allegiance. This is the side I think JK Rowling is on, through her social worker character, but the only coherent argument I discern in favor of this position is that the alternative would be… sad.2

hardcover design for novel The Casual Vacancy

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The story filled me with indignation. But the tale dissolves in a sigh, rather than coalescing into any kind of grace or light, and in that, I feel cheated as a reader, and very cheated in my having felt indignant.

Yet I can’t say I dislike the book (although I don’t like its vision). Ms. Rowling has brought to life a complex (and navel-gazing) small community. I salute her for getting another, different work out so soon after the Harry Potter series. She has avoided being pigeonholed (I hope), as well as from being sucked into the vortex Harper Lee fell into. To Kill a Mockingbird was a smash success. Ms. Lee never wrote another book. Ms. Rowling has.

Would I recommend you read The Casual Vacancy? Absolutely. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a good book. It’s engaging and well worth reading. Plus, I would love to hear what other people think about both the story and the literary construction. How do you feel about some of my observations in this post?


1. Don’t fret, those of you who are curiosity-minded; I’ll do a “reveal” at the end of the post. Feel free to skip down to find out who it is in advance. The post may include a few spoilers, so keep that in mind if you’d rather be surprised.

2. A weak argument. Can’t we muster anything stronger than that? Losing hold of “right” and “wrong” not only diminishes us as people, but robs us of literary muscle.

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Words = Power

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For the final two weeks of my voice and speech class, each of us was meant to work with a specific text that we’d chosen. Not more than a few lines. My teacher said this could be dialogue, a presentation, poetry, song lyrics… whatever. The main criterion was the text should be something we knew well… and that each of us was comfortable delivering in class.

I began thinking about the text a couple of weeks ago when my teacher reminded us to have it ready. Almost immediately, I also began to think about how I could avoid the lines that would not stop going through my head. Surely, I thought, I can’t be comfortable with those words…

I’ve been circling this thought for weeks. The words that I can’t shake are a song lyric, beautiful in its phrasing and heavy with emotional freight. They are awful and beautiful at the same time. Awful, because I want with every fiber of my being to be the one who wrote them. Beautiful, because even without music, they sing.

And he was always much more human than he wished to be

Really, the verses pursue me. I’ve tried isolating bits of the lyric from the rest: experimenting with just two lines to use in class. Thinking, if I separate these threads, these veins that bleed into one another, the smaller fragment will be easier to contain. Easier to carry.

My mistake.

So I skulked the stacks in the drama and poetry sections of the library, in search of something memorable — something I could easily remember — which was also easier to carry, and easier to hear.

What I checked out was the following:

  • The Essential Dickenson (Emily)
  • Three plays by David Mamet

So much for happiness and froth. I wonder what this says about me…

All of my selections proved to be difficult at meeting my primary search criterion: text that was lighter than the haunted verses that wouldn’t leave me alone.

Emily is memorable, but her poems have a strength of structure that conspires against me. I’ve always had difficulty reading poetry aloud. I have to fight against being held hostage by the end of the line. Emily’s poetry is cadences of pure tensile strength… How can a little weakling like me begin to play with her text?

Mamet, on the other hand, has easy, flowing dialogue. But it’s nearly impossible to find speech that doesn’t carry dangerous, spiky undercurrents, even in the comedies.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the musculature in Emily’s poetry, I found it relatively easy to remember her verse. I really liked the start of this poem, particularly because I am a writer:

She dealt her pretty words like Blades–
How glittering they shone–
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone–

The power of words! Who wouldn’t love to declaim those lines? Up until the very moment I stood up in class I was convinced those would be the words that passed my lips.

Didn’t happen that way. Instead, I went with a bit from the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert. The book has a wonderful, gentle sense of humor, and I thought I could use that rather than the bare intensity in Emily’s lines. Back to eschewing the heavy stuff.

In the end, I chose the power verses for myself, but kept them secreted from the audience. I was afraid of the strength of those verses — could I contain them, could I embody them… could I handle their impact on the people who would hear me speak?


What about you — can you think of a time when you pulled back from your own power?