Casual Vacancy 4: Literary Narcissism — Art of the Psychic Realm

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 Heresy’ 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?


  1. Definitely. I felt that was one of the main things I took away from the book. A look in the mirror. Am I doing good enough? Do the things I say unintentionally hurt my daughter. Does my (willful) ignorance of the problems around me cause those problems to worsen? Do I let the people surrounding me say things that hurt other people knowing it is hurting another person, but not standing up for them. Do I not fight loud enough for social change and support, letting those in need go to the wayside.

    (Speaking of which – did you see something of the Good Samaritan in the three people who walk past Robbie and completely ignore him, and then Sukhvinder comes by and although his big sister has yelled obscenities at her, she dives right in to save the little brother? Very different ending than the GS, but I felt the parable was definitely there.)

    Harry Potter is known amongst many of us to have changed the world – The HP-Alliance, Lumos, and other smaller deeds done on a daily basis while thinking about what Harry or Dumbledore would do (though I would say WWJD, instead) – I think that Rowling is a master at turning our inward selves and pointing them outward.

  2. In the sequel to Casual Vacancy is Simon Price going to die in the deli because his EpiPen is missing? If he does I hope no one will suspect poor Shirley!

  3. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    I’ve been in two minds whether or not to add to the discussion about CV. You see, I loved Harry Potter and disliked CV intensely. This wasn’t the reaction I expected. I thought Jo Rowling was brave to write a non fantasy book and totally respected her commitment as an author to simply want to write. That is still my opinion and I hope she goes on to write many more books.
    What I do want to argue though, is about the realism of CV.
    It isn’t realistic. Yes, I know it’s got rafts of swearing and grim descriptions of drug taking, sex, abuse and poverty, but that doesn’t make it realistic.
    Take Krystal, for instance. My daughters attended an ordinary British comphrehensive school and there were plenty of Krystals in the school. (The catchment area was very mixed!) The slang British term for the Krystals of this world is “Chav”. Nobody in the CV uses this term and, believe me, they would. Krystal has no friends. A real life Krystal would have. Moreover, someone as determined, as scornful of authority, as sharp as Krystal would be the leader of her gang of chavs.
    Her desire for a baby as a means of escape is real enough, but there’s no way she would have got together with a self conscious snooty prig like Fats. There must be plenty of other boys in the school and she’d find one much more to her taste.
    To go onto the rest of the characters, just how loaded are the dice in these people’s lives? Don’t they ever have a lucky break or a happy thought? Unrelenting grimness is not realistic, any more than continual unqualified jollity. They’re living the West Country, for Pete’s sake, not Syria.
    I got the whiff of a Thomas Hardy type irony, in that the stolen computer is chucked is the river and it’s a broken computer monitor that slices Sukvinda’s leg when she dives in. But the irony doesn’t come off, does it? Any more than the Causual Vacancy does. And if realism means “a description of real life” then it isn’t realistic, either.

  4. I found that I knew a lot of the characters but none more so than Shirley. There is a person in my life who is so absolutely clueless and has absolutely no idea how she impacts others by her actions and attitudes. I have tried to speak with her about it to no avail — she cannot or will not see.

    That said I also saw myself in some of the characters, choosing to look the other way rather than confront a problem, staying in a relationship out of guilt, having too high expectations of my kids and coming down hard when they are not met and/or the opposite extreme of letting behaviors go because they are developmentally appropriate.

    The other issue for reflection for me is the temptation to think of “the poor” as a unit instead of seeing and respecting each individual as a person. As a middle class American, I have to make the choice to get involved with the less fortunate or I may never see them. I mean literally. I live in such a way that it is easy to forget poverty except when I see it on tv, and yet I don’t have to travel too far outside my normal path to come face to face with deprivation. This is something I’m already choosing to do on a regular basis and reading CV just sealed my resolve to “make a difference,” however small, in whatever way I can.

  5. Dolores, I totally agree with your comments on realism.

  6. Dolores – I so respect your opinion of writing and all that is involved because you’ll forget more about writing than I will ever know. I posted a comment on how I thought Jo’s story is real from the people I see every day, but it is wonderful to see how a British author looks at the things I may not be aware of. Thanks so much for your outlook and opinion. I will definitely consider it when I look at the book again. Great to see your post!!!

  7. Lit Student says

    This is in regards to Dolores discussion about realism,

    I think perhaps, that you have taken realism in a literal way instead of a literary movement. If we take a look at Rowling’s novel in the perspective that its genre is realism then I believe that you can expand on your argument.

    Instead of the novel just about being how ‘real’ it is, look at realism as a literary term or movement; “Realist authors opted for depictions of everyday and banal activities and experiences, instead of a romanticized or similarly stylized presentation.” this suggests that there is a social reform or even writing reform in that literature was not as styalised. In fact realism dates back to the 19th centurary where realism focused very much on the idea of a moral compas and right and wrong.

    We can therefore relate this to Rowling’s work in The Casual Vacancy. I consider her work to be very traditional in that moral lessons are learnt, characters are developed and there is an overal theme of grimness. The harsh reality of what occurs in the story ensures that there is a lesson to be learnt- a 19th centurary theme that can be found in many novels that had a more romanticised style.

    What I wanted to address in your comment was your focus on what you perceived to be realistic. Just because Rowling used swearing and breeched subjects of taboo does not mean the novel is trying to be realist, it is a part of the conventions of realism, the presentation of characters and the dialect that make it a part of the realism.

    The fact that Krystal is not called a chav and so on does not mean that the novel is not realistic. Perhaps if you consider the context in which it was written and recieved you would have a broader understanding (I mean no disrespect here). A chav is not a generalised term, in fact it is one that has come about recently and perhaps not one that would be used in the context of the plot. Not stating that a character is something when it is obvious that they are does not damage the arguments that the novel is a realist novel; in fact the blunt use of dialect and happenings in the novel are a device in which to express a realitic novel or movememnt.

    It could be considered that Rowling’s novel is a realist novel because through the grim plot and ending, there are moral changes and understandings, we can see this through the characterisation. In fact, the story is extremely traditional in a sense that there is something to be taken from the plot, that there is something to be learnt. Post modern realism changes in that writers become observers and not one to change the dilemma which they are writing about.

    I believe J.K. Rowling’s novel is a traditional realist novel, perhaps some would disagree but I am focusing on the original meaning of realism and not the post modern. Rowling to me is an author of involvement and not observation.

  8. I loved the book and was very moved at the end. In addition to the obvious about Krystal, I also felt a horrible pain for all the girls who are unpolished and misunderstood. On top of everything, I felt like screaming about the inevitable walls that we create unnecessarily that keep us from extending even the thinnest thread of understanding and compassion. My frustration over the “lord-of-the-flies reality we mostly live in where groups judge and exclude others did rage out of me as the death scene approached. I think all Jo was asking of us was to wonder what it might be like to be on that side of life and how different it might look if you got to know any of “those” people individually instead of lumping them in with “the poor.”

    I would also like to comment on the analysis of the characters’ correspondence with Jo and people in her real life. I can agree to all, but one. I agree with Jo/Parminder in many ways, but remember how much she loved Barry and the grief she had at his passing? To me Barry was Harry. Harry, who had such an impact on every life he touched and with whom Jo spent so much time. I think her loss of Harry as a regular part of her life was as real as any death could ever be. It had been a place she could go that was safe and comforting. In names, she said there was no connection, but I ask you…she spends 15 years writing about a character named Harry and then turns around and writes a book about a guy named Barry and they’re not connected??? I don’t think so. He’s the only character with innate kindness and generosity, a hero of sorts in this community. He dies right away. Isn’t she saying my hero (Harry) is gone or absent and this is what I was and am without him? Isn’t this the vacancy? How have these people (maybe us and maybe Jo herself) been affected by his goodness and the fact that he is no longer present? In an epilogue of my own making, I imagine each one thinking about Barry at length and examining their relationship to him. It’s not that we no longer need a hero, but that a hero comes and goes and we have to stand on our own with what they left us when they go.

  9. Katherine Grimes says

    Some comments here confuse the limited series with the book. They’re quite different, really, especially at the end.
    Carson McCullers once said (I’m paraphrasing here) that every one of her characters was like herself in some way.

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