Diane Rehm Show (NPR): Discussion of JKR’s Casual Vacancy

Diane Rehm features a book each month on her popular NPR talk-radio program called ‘Reader’s Review.’ This month the novel selected was Joanne Rowling’s Casual Vacancy. You can listen to the discussion which aired Wednesday here.

The producer and I spoke  for the better part of an hour about the symbolism, structure, implicit parallels, and postmodern meaning beyond the surface narrative and obvious political messaging. That conversation was all about the discussions found here, Hogwarts Professor Casual Vacancy Thread Round-Up, a link she put on the NPR Diane Rehm page for that show.

I finally listened to it myself last week and confess to scratching my head. Outside of one bizarro caller who wanted to talk about Ms. Rowling’s “metaphysics,” and whom was immediately given a brief, polite answer in dismissal, the show didn’t talk about the depth, the structure, the allegory, not to mention the alchemy and its like. Nada. The expert guests, all literary sophisticates with guild certification, agreed even when they disagreed on surface points they liked and disliked — and that was all the conversation dwelt on, in the end — that the book was only one more reading experience among many.

When the British maven felt obliged to express her disgust with Congress’ decision not to extend unemployment benefits, seemingly as a throw away comment but really entirely in keeping with the quality of her critique of Rowling’s work, I almost tuned out. Why continue listening to these evaluations of the work in question that could only see the surface and moral/political ‘realism’ of a story that is almost fairy tale like in its allegorical qualities?

I hope you will give the show a listen if you have any free time between Western Christmas and the Gregorian calendar New Year. Is this the usual level of conversation about popular literature? Or did Diane Rehm just have a bad day or poor panel? [Read more…]

J. K. Rowling Speaks Out on the Meaning of ‘Casual Vacancy’

Mind-blowing. And wonderfully refreshing. And possibly a wrong turn?

Forgive me, but Joanne Rowling is not one to let her hair down, if you will, and talk themes and meaning and artistry straight up with her readers. In the ten year roll-out of the Hogwarts Saga and beyond we got much less in many more interviews than the author revealed in one go at GoodReads.com in answer to a question about character development in Casual Vacancy.

Read the whole thing — and then read it again.

The best part, I thought, was her description of the Good Samaritan finale when three characters walk by the little boy about to die. She says flat out that the novel “was constructed” so that when this happens the reader is struck by the three characters as allegorical transparencies for specific human failings. [Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 19: Seven Deadly Sins Guest Post

Sarah McDonald shared this idea with me at a recent talk I gave at Full Circle Bookstore in Oklahoma City. I begged her to write it up as a guest post which she has. Yes, I disagree with her conclusion about writers being the only ones who understand the intentions of their work — but I love the unveiling of the novel’s transparencies in light of the seven deadly sins. It almost certainly isn’t what Ms Rowling intended, as such, and it just as certainly opens up the virtues and vices (well, the vices…) of the novel’s players. Without further ado, then —  ‘The Seven Deadly Sins in Joanne Rowling’s Casual Vacancy,’ by Sarah McDonald.

It seems like important things come in sevens. There are seven notes in music, seven colors in a rainbow, seven books in the Harry Potter series, and of course, seven deadly sins. They are the big ones, the origin of other sins.

I’m not particularly proud of this, but until a few days ago the only one I knew was gluttony, mostly because it’s something we Americans seem to indulge in on a regular basis. As I sat curled up with The Casual Vacancy and read J.K. Rowling’s description of Howard Mollison and his massive stomach, I couldn’t help thinking that he exemplified the concept of gluttony perfectly. Then, I got an idea. Clearly, sin was rampant in Pagford. What if I could nail down all seven?

Reading the book became a game, a hunt for the sins, if you will. I managed to track down a character for each of the cardinal sins as follows:

1. Gluttony = Howard Mollison

As I mentioned previously, it wouldn’t take much to nail down Mr. Mollison with gluttony. Gluttony is any type of over-indulgence, though it is applied most often to over-eating, which is what makes Howard a prime candidate.

He is described in the book as having a stomach so grotesquely large that it leads people to thinking some rather uncomfortable thoughts. The fat has gotten to the point that he has developed a rash under his excess skin. Towards the end of the book, he suffers a second heart attack due to his obesity, and the prognosis is grim. When he talks about other people’s addictions as being easily cured at the Parish council meeting, Parminder Jawanda brilliantly rebuttals: [Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 16: Chaya Golan on “What is Real?”

From a letter to me written by Hogwarts Professor.com’s Adjunct Tutor, Chaya Golan:

I have finally read The Casual Vacancy, motivated in good part by wanting to be able to read and enjoy your posts about it.  And indeed, as I read through the beginning of the book, as many others who responded to your posts have said, I might not have continued reading if it weren’t for that motive.  Mysteries were introduced (“What was Krystal going to be interviewed concerning?” and then “What was the terrible thing Tessa Wall did?”), but the main and most compelling mystery for me was, “Why did J.K. Rowling, who can write so beautifully, write this???? “  You had said before the book came out that as an “adult” book, it was likely to contain foul language and sex scenes – but even thus forewarned, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “but to such a degree???”

However, by the end of what turned out to be, I thought, a beautiful – if very sad – story, I understood why.  And I am moved by what I imagine to be JKR’s story – that of someone who must feel such an awful responsibility for what she writes – knowing that she has the power to reach millions of people all over the world – and choosing how to use it.  I could feel that this was a story that came straight from her heart.

So, a bunch of things went through my mind as I read the book, and I wanted to share some of them with you. [Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 15: A Telling Re-Take on ‘The Good Samaritan’

In response to HogwartsProfessor Casual Vacancy post 4 on Literary Narcissism, Kelly first raised the possibility that Ms. Rowling’s  post Hogwarts Saga debut was a postmodern re-telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Lavonne Neff at Christianity Today spoke to this possibility as well, while denying a Christian allegory. I urged a reader who wrote me with thoughts along the Good Samaritan lines to write them up as a Guest Post for your consideration.

The Casual Vacancy and the Good Samaritan by B. Waisanen

There are some obvious parallels between Casual Vacancy and the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As you well know, a lawyer asks Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus prompts the lawyer, “What is written in the law?” The lawyer answers with a quote, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself,” and Jesus says, “You have answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.” But the lawyer, “….willing to justify himself,” asks, “…And who is my neighbor?”

This seems to be a fundamental question of The Casual Vacancy, and it comes with a rather obvious answer. However, is Rowling really that obvious? Something has to be going on under the surface. Connecting the dots between the central parable and the book’s title provides a key to the deeper meaning of the book; that the casual vacancy,  of England’s Christian heritage leads to the inevitable tragedy of the ending.

While I’m sure Good Samaritans abound in the book, Barry Fairbrother is the obvious first choice candidate, dealing out help and healing all round. Not only is he the main tether keeping Krystal on track, Barry supports Gavin, Cubby, Parminder, and the Fields in general.

Later on, as Miles and Samantha arrive for dinner, Rowling slides in another reference, “Here they are, the good Samaritans,” boomed Howard.” Unfortunately, he seems to be making an over the top double entendre towards Samantha.

The real acting out of the parable happens at the end of the story.

A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho….

The journey took Krystal back to her childhood. She had made this trip daily to St. Thomas’s all on her own, on the bus.

It is not a man, but a girl and her brother. I think it is not accidental, that Krystal and Robbie journey up from the Fields to Pagford. She makes a journey, but it is in reverse direction.  The man in the parable journeys from Jerusalem, the city of God, to Jericho. If it Rowling meant this to be a direct parallel, she would have had the journey reversed, from Pagford down to the Fields. [Read more…]