Is Casual Vacancy a ring composition? As I wrote in the literary Alchemy thread, given the success Ms Rowling had with Harry Potter’s story circles with parallel analogies, it is very hard to imagine her writing without a very serious form or scaffolding loom within which she could weave her magic carpet. Even a glance at Vacancy’s structure suggests that it is a classic ring with conjoining beginning and end, story center or origin pointing to the finish, and parallel echoing across the ring’s axis.
Beginning and End: Part 1 and Part 7 of this seven part work begin and end with adulatory profiles and remembrances of Krystall Weedon as heroine to those who knew her and as martyr to the opinion of the world. Barry Fairbrother neglects his wife and their wedding anniversary (not to mention the headache that turns out to be the warning of his incipient death) to write a paean to Krystall for the local newspaper. The story closes with Sukhvinder Jawanda (‘Jolly’ — are we meant to think of Mark Tapley?) in a church pew recalling with vividness and something like adoration Krystall’s every word at the regatta against St. Mary’s the year previous and how she inspired her Eight to victory there. We have story bookends, then, both in the unlikely and lamentable deaths of heroic characters and their funerals, the importance of telling and understanding Krystall’s story correctly, and the likelihood that it wil not be understood as it should be. Fairbrother’s newspaper piece ‘runs’ but to no effect, bracketed as it is by a Mollinson counter-point, and Jolly’s view is not the one shared from the pulpit because Krystall, even in death, is despised by the world.
[Mary Douglas writes in Thinking in Circles that a fourth quality of ring compositions is that they include rings within rings. A topic, then, that we will be obliged to explore will be the seven days of Part 1 and the relationship of these days to one another as well as to the seven Parts of the book. Note that there is no 'Thursday' for instance in the retelling of that week's doings while she inserts an 'Olden Days' expository exercise between 'Monday' and 'Tuesday.' If it is a ring within the book ring, we should see Sunday and Saturday align with 'Tuesday,' the fourth part, as story pivot and internal echoing Monday-Friday, and Olden Days-Wednesday.]
Story Pivot and Origin: Ring composition suggests a neat symmetry and certainly that was true of the Hogwarts Saga. If Casual Vacancy is a traditional ring, though, it is a lopsided circle. The story’s beginning and end parts, 1 and 7, most obviously are the books longest and second shortest parts in terms of page counts. Just to say we looked, note that Part 1 with its seven ‘Days’ is the longest, Part 6 is the shortest, Part 7 comes next on the short end with Part 5 more than twice as long as 7 and only a little shorter than Parts 2, 3, and 4 which are almost exactly the same length. Part 1 has its seven days and 32 chapters (1, 10, 6, 7, 5, 1, and 2), Part 2 has ten chapters, Part 3 has 11, Part 4 has 10, Part 5 has 15, Part 6 has 4 chapters and Part 7 is one unbroken narrative. 83 chapters in all.
I have not yet had the chance to map the structure of the book as Ring Composition, which effort takes me two or three days as a rule and a bizzarro re-reading in non-sequential order. I suggest, though, that the obvious places to look for the story center will be the half-way point, the dumping of Simon Price’s ‘hot’ computer in the river, the chapter which is 42nd, or a meaningful chapter in Part 4. Let me explain why this is where I’d look first.
Part 4 is the ‘center’ of the seven parts. if, because of Part 1′s length, it won’t be the half-way point in the novel. If Ms. Rowling’s division in parts is intentional and qualitative, we should find notes of the novel’s beginning and finale within Part 4. that Part has ten chapters, so either chapters five and six or the half=way point of that Part would be natural search points. (In my edition, that would be the end of chapter 5, just before 6, in which chapter Stuart’s posting as ‘The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother’ about his father appears on the Pagford website. The chapter ends with some unpleasantness between Shirley and Howard Mollinson but the gut of it is Tessa’s belief that Stuart is the ghost in the wake of her husband’s descent into paranoia.)
The 42nd chapter is the halfway point in a book of 83 chapters, with 41 chapters before and after. If my counting is on — and please do check it! — the book’s 42nd chapter is Part 3, chapter 6 (26 chapters in Part 1, 10 in Part 2, and 6 from Part 3 gives us 42?). That chapter begins, “Things desired, things untold, things hidden and disguised.” The story opens with the changes in the Price household consequent to the Andrew/Ghost’s posting about Simon’s stolen computer and after-work hi-jinks for hire. It’s heart, though, is the dinner party at the Jawanda’s home before and during which Colin-Cubby almost has a nervous breakdown anticipating his exposure as pedophile, Tessa relates parenthetically she is a diabetic (and Stuart’s disgust at her “shooting up”), and the Jawanda couple’s origin in arranged marriage and Parminder and Vikram’s radically different perspectives on Pagford and their family. Barry haunts the chapter conclusion which is Tessa’s thoughts after seeing a picture of Krystall and Sukhvindar with their victorious Crew team. That, of course, is a tie to the story origin and finish.
“Things desired, things untold, things hidden and disguised.” Not a compolete sentence, I think we can agree, but not a bad description of the circle center, the non-local point that defines and causes the story ring, the mystery at the inner heart. The alchemist in me loves the foursome in this chapter: half dark, half light, half male, half female, two political, two apolitical — a dynamic in contraries and conjunction. Not to mention that their two black sheep children are not yet but soon will become ‘Ghosts of Barry Fairbrother’ online, both of whom will be the most transformed in Krystall’s death, especially with respect to their relationships to their parents.
I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I didn’t know that the dumping of Simon’s hot computer in the River Orr was at the opening of this Part 3 chapter. I thought it might be the spot because Simon’s plans to acquire the stolen computer come in Part 1, ‘Monday,’ chapter 10, the last chapter before ‘Olden Days’ and Sukhvindar’s foot crashes through the computer screen in the river when she goes in to rescue Robbie (or is it really to die, as in Indian ashes of the departed and the long-suffering Ophelia?). But there is it in the numerically central chapter. With the Quarreling Couples also in chapter 42 (Part 3, chapter 6), I think it is a good bet for story origin tying beginning to end and as turning point in the book.
But there is an easier way to find story center. Go to the last page to see how many pages are in the book. Divide that number by two. Go that page.
In my edition, that brings me to the last chapter of Part 2, in which Stuart Wall takes Krystall Weedon to the graveyard to lose his virginity in a marijuana haze. I’ve begun the exegesis of that critically important ‘love and death’ in thread #6 on the novel’s alchemical meaning. Because of its central location in relation to the ‘sex and death’ conversation in the Cave-Cubby Hole between Fats and Andrew and the tragic intimacy in the bushes that leads to Robby’s drowning and Krystall’s death, I have to think this chapter is at least as likely a story center as the 42nd chapter.
Parallel Analogies: The most labor intensive part of charting a ring composition is laying out the ‘reverse echoes’ of the story parts or chapters that face another across the axis dividing the novel ring, the bisecting line between beginning/end and story pivot. I don’t have time to do that today, but, if you do, here is how I will proceed when I take up the task. I cannot guarantee this will reveal a ring, but if these two approaches don’t work, I’ll be arguing a skeptical line about Vacancy having a traditional chiasmus structure.
First, tape together three 11″ x 17″ pieces of paper at the short ends for an 11″ x 51″ single sheet. Draw a 44 1/2″ line from end to end of this sheet, a line that gives you a nearly equal top half and bottom half. Divide this 44 1/2″ line into 83 half inch segments. On the top half side of the line, label the segments by Part, Day, and Chapter respectively. On the bottom side line, number them 1 to 83. Circle chapters 36 and 42 to mark possible story pivots.
You can do this ring-picture drawing other ways, of course. I’m tempted, frankly, to use a flip chart this time and draw a circle proper rather than a flattened circle with story turn as mid-point. Do whatever helps you see the book as a whole and allows you to relate the parts.
Got your picture? Now for the re-reading and ring-worm work.
If the book is a traditional ring or even just another Joanne Rowling novel (!), it should have parallels across the divide bisecting the story.If you’re confident that you have the story center, work out from that point reading the chapter before it and after it. No clear parallel or story echoes and reverses? Try reading as many as four or five chapters on both sides. Write down the key points in each chapter either above or below the central line of your 51″ sheet. Nothing there? Take seriously the possibility that you haven’t got the right center.
Try another center or go to Chapter one, that is, Part 1, ‘Sunday,’ and read it and the last chapter of the book. Read as many as four or five of the opening and closing chapters to see the echoes (there are echoes here). Work your way toward the center, grouping chapters as necessary; unless Chapter 42 is the center, it’s impossible that the book have a perfect single-chapter-to-single-chapter as does the OCD Goblet of Fire, and, even if it is that chapter, I doubt the structure will be that symmetrical.
If you haven’t got the free day or three that this process takes, consider scanning the seven parts for their key events to see if we have a Parts 1-4-7, 2-6, 3-5 seven part ring. As the novel is about an alchemical transformation of its players and the magnum opus is a seven part process, each of the parts could represent the seven stages, the seven planets and key metals, or (and?), as I’d suspect, they align somehow as a reductio et conjunctio ring of parallel parts.
Only reading and studying the formal parts will reveal Ms. Rowling’s esoteric artistry, if she hasn’t chosen to take a new tack from her previous work. This charting and digging for parallels, though something of a slog, is invaluable work for grasping artistry and meaning. If you don’t share that opinion, I urge you to reflect on Alastair Fowler’s memories of C. S. Lewis below. Fowler, who “wrote the book” on chiasmus and the “sovereign center” in Elizabethan poetry and masques, was one of CSL’s only graduate students.
‘C. S. Lewis: Supervisor’ by Alaister Fowler
The flow of Lewis’s writing and speaking had much to do with this remarkable memory. Memory feats were common enough in Oxford then, especially among classicists. Edgar Lobe the papyrologist and fungiphage, to mention one, modestly denied having Homer by heart – but added, “Mind you, if you said a verse I dare say I could give you the next one.” Lewis could have claimed much the same of Paradise Lost. Kenneth Tynan, whom Lewis tutored, tells of a memory game. Tynan had to choose a number from one to forty, for the shelf in Lewis’s library; a number from one to twenty, for the place in this shelf; from one to a hundred, for the page; and from one to twenty-five for the line, which he read aloud. Lewis had then to identify the book and say what the page was about. I can believe this, having seen how rapidly he found passages in his complete Rudyard Kipling or his William Morris. Tynan’s anecdote usefully suggests the sort of memory involved; not memory by rote (although Lewis had plenty of that) but something more like the Renaissance ars memorativa, depending on “places” in texts. It was not principally memoria ad verba but rather ad res – memory of the substance, aimed at grasp of contents through their structure. Lewis’s annotations of his own books show him continually charting formal structures and divisions of the work. When he offers himself in De Descriptione Temporum as a specimen of “Old Western culture”, he could have validated this on the basis of memory alone. But we ignored him; and now that detailed knowledge of texts is neither pursued nor examined, an essential method of cultivating and testing literary competence has been abandoned. ….
Neglect the structure at your peril if you’re a serious reader. The meaning is in the middle, as they say, and radiates out from it to bring us, return us, to that metaphysical point. Let us all know here what you find if you begin the work before I do!