In my public Harry Potter talks this summer, more than fifteen, not counting my conversations with various Pundits at MuggleNet Academia, there was relatively little interest, believe it or not, in Casual Vacancy. I was asked several times, though, if I believed Ms. Rowling would embed the symbols, structures, and scaffolding of literary alchemy into her adult novel. I thought she would.
Why? There’s the common sense reason, of course, that a winning pitcher doesn’t throw anything but his best stuff in big games. To mix metaphors (and un-mixable horse races), given the success of Harry Potter , it’s not likely, I thought, that the author would feel the need to switch horses when the thoroughbred she’s been riding has won the Triple Crown, the Grand Prix de Paris, and the Derby Stakes.
To the objection that alchemy might work well with fantasy pieces but not a realist literary novel for adults (i,e., “serious writing”), my answer was simply “Shakespeare, Dickens, and Charles Williams.” I might have mentioned Hunger Games, too, but, alas, that powerful parable is classified as ‘Young Adult’ Fiction and in the Dystopian genre to boot, so it doesn’t qualify as serious literature.
To the point, though, I thought Ms. Rowling would not abandon her winning alchemical hand because the reason Literary Alchemy is such a successful story telling is that the act of reading is by nature alchemical. As explained in each of my books and everywhere on this site, the sequencing and symbols of metallurgical alchemy are efficacious to reader transformation when they are used in text because the experience of that reader in stories-told-well is that of the lead-to-gold alchemist: identification or elision of subject-object, catharsis in crisis-crucible, and illuminating transformation.
The full exploration of Casual Vacancy‘s alchemical signatures will require repeated readings. That Ms. Rowling still wears her alchemist bonnet when writing, however, is evident in the first rushed run-through. Not only does she mention alchemy three times, but the thematic heart of the book, ‘Love and Death,’ ‘Authenticity and Hypocrisy,’ is an alchemical glyph.
The out right mentions? The tears of Parminder at her father’s death which “seemed to undergo an alchemical transformation” (Part 1, ‘Monday, chapter 8), the “inevitable, alchemical transformation” consequent to Simon Price’s departure from the Padsford council race (part 3, chapter 7), and the “transformation” of Robbie in the public mind from “dirty and foul mouthed little boy” to “a water baby” (Part 7) if not explicitly alchemical is clearly meant to be read as such. Fats’ tormenting Jolly as a “hermaphrodite” is important, too, of course, especially in light of this young woman’s heroic transformation and actions at story’s end.
But it is the three “love and death” moments that are the alchemical highlights or ‘Howlers,’ if you will.
(1) Andrew and Stuart (“Fats”) meet in the Cave next to the river to discuss life and share their secrets while smoking dope (Part 1, ‘Saturday,’ chapter 2; the seventh day Part 1′s week, the end of the opening of the seven part work — see thread #7). Their posture relative to one another there is important:
“Fats stretched out on his back in his funeral suit, his feet toward the river. Wordlessly, Andrew stretched out beside him. in the opposite direction. They had slept like this, ‘top and tail,’ when they had stayed overnight at each other’s houses as children.”
Electing to skip the burial, Fats has come straight to the river from the funeral of Barry Fairbrother to go underground himself with his best of friends, his diptych ‘other’ (see thread #9). Together they form an Ouroboros or dragon eating it’s own tail, an alchemical Tao, which “paradoxical hieroglyph” as Lyndy Abraham notes in Dictionary of Alchemical Imagery “symbolizes the magical transforming arcanum which both slays and is slain, resurrects and is resurrected during the process of the opus” (p. 207, ‘Uroborus’). The two boys, in their relatively disembodied drug high “realize” and say aloud that the principal mysteries of life, “What Matters,” are sex (“fucking” inevitably, of course) and death. These are shadows on the Cave Wall of greater truths than they know.
Fats skips the Fairbrother funeral but he goes to the graveyard for a cannabis-laced sexual congress with Krystall Weedon, a Barry devotee. Here he is in his birthday rather than his funeral suit (Part 2, chapter 10; again, the last pages of a chapter). Here, in making the “beast with two backs,” Fats and Krystall are another Ouroboros and the elision of self and ‘other’ in both sex and death unnerves both male and female characters.
The human tao, life underground, sex and death, the river, dissolution in coitus and drugs — we see them again in Part 5, chapters 9 and 12, when Krystall, realizing that her mother has used heroin and that this will end whatever hope she has of keeping Robbie unless she becomes pregnant, finds Fats and takes him to the river. They have at it in the bushes, Robbie drowns, and both Krystall and Fats die to self, she in suicidal overdose and he in the birth of conscience and responsibility. Both have turned into their opposites, she the mother to her mother, no-drug-use police woman become drug user, he the Leopold and Loeb nihilist who despises his guilt paralyzed father becomes both his father’s ward and image after Tessa reveals to him his possibly incestuous (self-loving) biological and geometric origin.
Jolly and Samantha are the most changed by this crisis and chrysalis, which transformations I hope to explore on another thread. To close this first of what I assume will be several Casual Vacancy alchemical posts, I’m obliged to note that ‘Love and Death’ are alchemical signatures because the edifying action of the magnum opus is solve et coagula, conjunction and dissolution, which contrary and complementary polarities, like the beating of the organic and inner heart, are the means and symbol of biological life and the greater life.
In alchemical literature as in metallurgical texts, this expansion and contraction is represented by the Alchemical Wedding, the consummation of which joining leads to the death of each contrary, their respective elevation, and the birth of the Philosophical Orphan or Philosopher’s Stone.
Krystall Weedon in this hermetic parable is the spiritual cornerstone despised by the World, whose name points to her being the embodied Light of the novel’s action (‘Crystal’) as well as the Christ figure only the potentially illumined or brilliant can see and love, namely, Barry and Stuart, the presidential and royal names, again, being no accident. Kystall Weedon broken down becomes ‘Christ pissed on by everyone.’ Vacancy‘s original title was Responsible — and Rowling reminds us in the figurative and literal story deaths of Krystall Weedon and Stuart Wall that we are responsible for the life or death of Christ in ourselves and, as much as we love brother as self, in our neighbor as well. Crucifixions are happening all around us and we are the mob worshiping Caesar and denying Christ inwardly and outwardly in our nihilistic pre-occupations and political casuistry or indifference.
More on this allegory via Lyndy Abraham’s Dictionary soon, especially about the differences and similarities of the story’s caduceus sightings. Until then, your thoughts please on the alchemical freight and power of Casual Vacancy as you experienced it on your first reading.