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