I have discussed at some length in my work on Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books the psychological quality of any author’s work. Writing fiction inevitably is, in varying degrees, psychotherapy of sorts in which authors act out their repressed injuries and create wish-fulfillment experiences as self-medication. Twilight and The Host are this in spades and Harry Potter, too, does not escape what is largely inevitable in a creative process that is essentially the imagination and unconscious unleashed.
Casual Vacancy, of course, in being a realist novel of many minds whose inner workings and paths are revealed as the voice of the narrative brings us Ms. Rowling’s own mind and experiences right to the fore. To risk hyperbole and state my working critical hypothesis baldly, one cannot write the thoughts and perspective of another person unless that type has told you their thoughts or you have had them yourself. Ms. Rowling invites this sort of ‘Personal Hersey’ interpretation of Casual Vacancy both in saying repeatedly in publication week interviews that she “had to write” this book, that it’s personal to her, and by making the run-up a repeated review of her biographical experiences in the West Country and afterwards.
You don’t need Sherlock Holmes, consequently, to draw the dot to dot connections between almost every character and some experience we know of Ms. Rowling’s life. Howard Mollinson and Simon Price, of course, are the abusive daddy who worked at the Rolls Royce plant and from whom Ms. Rowling has been estranged for years (essentially since his marriage to his secretary very soon after Ms. Rowling’s mother’s death). Andrew Price is the young Jo Rowling, Paul her younger sister, both of whom lived in fear of the violent man, and Ruth Price, the nurse, is the long-suffering, apologetic Rowling mom, who went back to work in a scientific field much as Ruth returns to nursing.
Kay Bawden the Social Worker? Jo Rowling, the young single Amnesty International idealist and magnet for men who are losers. Gaia Bowden, the London girl out of step in Padsford? The much younger Joanne Rowling, on her relocation to Forest of Dean in the West Country due to her father’s job change. Gavin? The first husband in Portugal, certainly, and probably a melange of various cads Ms. Rowling knew intimately.
Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall? The student Jo Rowling, consumed by French existentialism, authenticity, and a hatred of hypocrisy, indifferent to the pain she caused others in her ‘cool’ Smiths-Sex Pistols phase. He’s got everything but the eye-liner and boots. Cubby and Tessa Wall? The front and back of Ms Rowling in therapy before and during her great success as Harry Potter author (most notably in the shamming and the dealing with OCD and self-induced guilt bordering on paranoia and delusion. If one wants to go gung-ho in association, there’s probably a little Jo-Jessica, mother-daughter relation in here as well, though the Parminder/Jolly kinship is better for that.
Samantha and Miles Mollison? Forgive me for assuming that the buxom Samantha is a poisonous self-portrait of Ms. Rowling’s dark side embedded in the novel. She is married to a second-tier professional who is devoted to her and whom she is ashamed to need and to despise simultaneously — and which character has the do-gooder epiphany and transformation at story end in relation to her spouse and community that is Ms Rowling’s wish fulfillment experience for her self and for her readers.
Parminder is the social activist and spiritually accomplished wife, mother, and GP. As the wife of a doctor and a person whose relatively non-devotional or unconventional faith makes her an outsider to Anglican norms, Mrs. Jawanda is the bright-side JKR embedded in text whose activism and neglect of her daughter is the author’s self-reproach and warning to others. Gordon Brown, the ‘late’ Prime Minister, I have to think is the Barry Fairbrother of sorts whom Ms. Rowling loved and became too involved with to the neglect of spouse and children. (See thread #5 for the political parable.)
Feel free to add the correspondences you see, especially Jo-Krystall Weedon as the girl she imagines she might have been in different circumstances or who she was vis a vis protecting the beloved younger sibling as well as swearing and fornicating ‘casually’ and ‘vacantly’ through adolescence.
Whatever you come up with, forgive me for noting this is more gossip and distracting speculation (however much the author invites it) than literary criticism; it doesn’t explain at all why the book works or how it fails to move a reader. Three notes in this regard.
(1) From the traditional and tested view, Casual Vacancy works, like all other writing and art, in so much as it delivers experience and meaning on the four levels of human knowing: information, opinion, allegorical/scientific knowledge, and anagogical wisdom. Life-to-art correspondences for which we search through the story to find Rowling shadows tells us exactly nothing about any of these knowings and experience that almost all readers not versed in JKR biography could possibly know.
(2) The realist novel, in the 19th century Austen-Dickens-Eliot mode at least, is both gritty and shocking at one level and provocatively allegorical and sublime in its transparencies, symbolism, and translucencies. To get ahead of myself a little, I suspect that readers, especially Potter devotees, that are stunned by the realism of the book will neglect the artistry and meaning they’re experiencing beneath Krystall and Kompany’s profanity and assault-pornography. There’s much more going on here than Ms. Rowling’s Equus moment and pitch for socialist intervention in the lives of needy people, as real as those things and the life-to-art correspondences in the story, conscious or not.
(3) I can say that the story moved me profoundly because in it I experienced the minds and hearts of husbands and wives, fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters, in a way that forced me to painful reflection on the facts-as-they-are in my current and formative relationships, i.e., to look in the story mirror at first unconsciously and then consciously. Was it a pleasant experience? Far from it. Was it rewarding? As much, I’d say, as it produced remorse and resolve to do better (which is to say, not respond as Cubby and the other Cave Dwellers do in the story…).
That. of course, is a different sort of experience and effect than the symbolist means-and-ends of High Fantasy, though, as I’ll argue, there is serious overlap in the literary delivery I’m sure will be neglected because of the harshness of the surface story. Realist novels are a means to self-transcendence, too, in brief, but much more of the psychic realm, the psychological reflection of the individual reader on his or her fallen self, than the spiritual experience of a greater reality than the personal conscience (if there is a greater reality than that Logos-Imagination).
If Rowling writes Casual Vacancy, again, as all authors write, to exorcize their inner demons and psychological detritus, this does not mean this is the substance of the story — unless readers cannot share in the edifying experience of this exorcism as human beings in relationships similar to Ms Rowling and her characters. I look forward to your comments and corrections at this thread chiefly on this point; does Casual Vacancy touch your heart and move you to reflection on the quality of your own thinking and relationships?