Casual Vacancy: A Month Until ‘The New Rowling’

The countdown began months ago but I begin to feel real anticipation when we are one or two lunar cycles away from the appearance of Casual Vacancy, Joanne Rowling’s first post Hogwarts Saga novel. It doesn’t hurt that men like Bruce Charlton, friend of this blog, has posted his thoughts on Ms Rowling as a writer in the form of “predictions” about Vacancy. He doesn’t actually make any predictions per se about what the book will contain or be about but he is much more enthused than he was at the publisher’s announcement of the title. Let me try to be more specific with my crystal ball to re-start the ball rowling, if you will, here.

I think it all comes down to the meaning of “adult novel,” the big difference between Vacancy and Harry Potter. I’d assume “adult” means at least five things akin to an ‘R’ rating in films, that is, ‘what keeps the movie from earning the coveted G-is-for-Disney rating.’

(1) Rough language: we saw hints of this in the Hogwarts Saga and I expect a heavy dose of realism in the language of this novel. F-bombs galore? Probably. Something like dung bombs with Fred and George, one or two won’t be enough.

(2) ‘Bedroom time’ won’t be about going to sleep. Expect either scenes of physical intimacy or revelations of infidelity and hypocrisy. Something shocking or disturbing for children but somehow challenging and important for adults (sic)… Remember two of Ms. Rowling’s three favorite writers are Nabokov and Collette, role models for some prurient writing.

(3) The Unhappy Ending: it may be a ring composition or alchemical drama (I’d bet a lot on the ring, frankly) but the flavor of the finale, I fear, will be more like King Lear than Much Ado About Nothing. I’m guessing dissolution and despair, an existential ennui with a few comic reversals.

(4) The Literary novel: Call it the ‘Equus Moment.’ Just as Daniel Radcliffe had to take a daring adult part to earn his acting street cred (and distance himself from childish things), I expect Ms. Rowling’s first novel post Harry will be more like Pynchon and Proust than E. Nesbit or Elizabeth Goudge. Heavy on introspection and elevated language — she’s had five years to raise her game in this regard.

(5) The Political Hammer: As Eric noted here, the first Rowling adventure starts with a baby named Harry who lives and the second has an adult named Barry who dies. Forgive me for believing that this points to Ms. Rowling penning and publishing a liberal jeremiad of sorts contra the political death (electoral assassination?) of Barrack Obama, known as ‘Barry’ when a young man. Why?

The author believes, for good reason I think, that her celebrity and wealth gives her certain powers to influence others and that she is obliged to accept that and do her best with said power. Given the Gryffindor colored ballot on the book’s cover and timing of the publication — not only ‘in time for Christmas’ but also on the eve of the 2012 Presidential election — I find it more than credible that this “political fairy tale” will be a harsh view of a world trending conservative, ‘Dursley-ish’ if you will, and a postmodern defense of tolerance (in neglect of hospitality).

Along with Eric, then, I’d say the first note Casual Vacancy’s political transparency is that “if Barry dies (Barack is not re-elected), all the fault lines in western society will be exposed in convulsion.” Or, as plausible, maybe she will be expressing her frustration, qua Laborite, with President Obama (and English liberals) ‘casually vacating’ their progressive, socialist principles and leaving the world to Uncle Vernon and Aunt Marge Thatcher.

Either way… A friend wrote me from the West Coast to say: “Sounds like she’s now bidding to be considered her generation’s George Orwell. We’ll just see.” Could ‘Casual Vacancy’ be Ms. Rowling’s bid to become a wry political satirist and commentator? I think that is likely. And, as likely as not, unfortunate. As Flannery O’Connor famously wrote to a friend, “”The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail.” Rightist or leftist, political fiction is rarely Orwellian in insight or breadth of view, not to mention ‘literate.’

I look forward to reading it nonetheless, because I enjoy Ms. Rowling’s work. I expect Casual Vacancy, however political, will also be wickedly funny and acidly critical of cartoon targets like politicians, teachers, reporters, and, an addition to her repertoire, clerics and Church Ladies. No doubt with back stories for each to show them in a more sympathetic light? Let’s hope she is that generous now that she is unleashed from her previous audience and genre restraints.

Fun moment to expect: her juvenile delinquents making a disparaging Harry Potter reference or an adult criticizing the books or a churchmen reading same. It has be to be in there somewhere.

Please share below what you anticipate in Vacancy, what you’re anticipating with delight and secretly dreading!


  1. I only disagree with your last part about the heavy emphasis on the US elections. It’s nice to think that the rest of the world hangs on our every word or election outcome, but I think Ms Rowling has already shown that she is more interested in what is going on in her own country.

    I get the connection that you are making with the character’s name of Barry, but I think it’s more likely that she chose it because it rhymes with Harry.

    I’m looking forward to the book. I’m not sure what I expect but my guess is that it’s more along the lines of a British movie that Maggie Smith was in a few years ago – “Keeping Mum”. It’s a murder mystery and wickedly funny. Yes, the language is there and one sex scene, but it had the same sort of sense of humor that Rowling showed in some of the funniest Harry Potter scenes. So, that’s what I’m hoping for.

    I can see her including political commentary in her book. She’s very involved in a lot of organizations that advocate for the sick or poor, and she had a fair amount of it in Harry Potter.

    Bring on September. I’m ready for it.

  2. Thanks for reminding me why I keep coming back to this site, John Granger! I’m looking forward to the end of Ms. Rowling’s vacancy…(I just couldn’t help myself) here.

    I do have to agree with Eeyore, though. I just can’t see Rowling giving too many shakes to the American political wasteland. In fact, if I had to hazard a guess, I might say that Rowling’s labor-leaning ideas lend her to a rather fatalistic reading of politics. That is, corporatism, lobbying interests, back-handedness–all of these make populist government look dead in the water. I’m thinking this could point to a human inability to govern from the smallest body to the largest system. Perhaps this could be more of a Barry Lyndon type character. After all, if she wants to go for satire, who better to look at than the master satirical novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray?

  3. John Granger says

    Rowling has admitted to an obsession with US politics. The idea that she sits this one out or that she couldn’t care less is a dog that won’t hunt. From 2008:

    JKR Discusses the Role of Death in the Series, Religion, the US Presidential Election and More in New Interview

    Q: We live in dark and sad times; you say it in your books, especially in this one. How do you live in these times?

    A: I have to believe in the kindness of the people. I think people are in nature, good. But actually, I continue watching American politics very closely. I am obsessed with the US elections. Because it will have profound effects on the rest of the world. The political situation in the US in recent years has badly affected your country as mine.

    Q: And if you had a magic wand, what would you do?

    A: I want a Democrat in the White House. And it seems a shame to me that Clinton and Obama are rivals because they are both extraordinary people.

  4. Bruce Charlton says

    Oh John, you’ve gotten me all depressed again…

    I try to hold onto the tough wisdom of what she wrote, rather than the superficial, sentimental tripe of what she (says she) believes.

    We must remember that espousing a belief in what people in the US would term ‘liberal causes’ is simply a matter of survival in the UK. It is non-optional.

    If JKR explicitly espoused traditional Christian values, that would be an end to her as a public figure, because (and I am not exaggerating in the slightest) there is not one single public figure in the UK who does espouse traditional values (especially *not* the chief bishops of the Anglican or Roman Catholic church – the nearest to a traditional figure would be the Orthodox Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, but he isn’t exactly a public figure).

    Yet is is clear (from what he has written, as well as what she says) that what JKR values more than anything else is 1. Love and 2. Courage – qualities which are utterly absent from the short-termism and materialistic hedonism of mainstream British political life as promoted by the mainstream political parties.

    Love and Courage – these evoke the medieval Knights Templar more than the New Labour Party under JKR’s great pal Gordon Brown – indeed, C.S Lewis could say no more!

  5. Well I probably won’t be buying it, at least not until I can get a copy at Half-Price books, but I definitely am intrigued and will want to read it!

  6. Dolores Gordon-Smith says

    In common with Eyeore, I don’t think JK Rowling will have been inspired by Barack Obama. The political systems are so different in the US and the UK that I really don’t see much creative imput there, however much she may respect him as a man and his achievement in becoming the first black president.
    What I am expecting is a very funny book concerned with the human folly thrown up by people wanting to be very big fish in a very small pond. I totally agree the theme doesn’t sound madly inspiring, but the theme of The KingsSpeech, say, doesn’t sound madly inspiring either and that was a triumph. What we all want, of course, is another Hogwarts Saga, but anything else in that line would be compared to Harry Potter and – inevitably – found wanting. Can we all give Jo Rowling a break? She’s a writer and wants to write. She’s been catapulted to enormous fame by capturing the imaginations of millions of readers and could easily never write another word. This book is something she wants to do, not has to do.

  7. I expect the book to be about either the failure of liberalism to live up to its ideals or the fall of liberalism under the onslaught of Tory conservatives like Uncle Vernon.

    The BHO connection is less about US politics than its serving the Harry/Barry lives/dies contrast-reflection and POTUS’ leftist politics being one example of what is also happening in the UK.

    I doubt very much that Ms. Rowling is writing for exercise rather than to make a point. I’m guessing that ‘point’ will be delivered via “political fairy tale” or transparency as she has said her first post Hogwarts effort would be. If that’s over reaching or over thinking, well, that’s my job!

    Sort of…

  8. OK, John, I see the point you are making. I’m still not sure this book will be THAT connected to President Obama. But politics? Yes, absolutely. All we have to do is look at all the political commentary Rowling put into the Harry Potter books – the treatment of the house-elves and their rebellion (or failure to follow Hermione in rebelling), Ministry of Magic and all it’s failures in actually helping anyone, the general corruption in the way people are chosen or weild their power to get what they want (Lucius, for one), how prejudice affects a person’s chances and choices.

    I guess I’m still hoping for a book with a lot of humor, irony, quirkiness that exposes our human follies and less real-life political references. But whatever she does, I look forward to reading it and reading between the lines for the extra meanings she’ll likely hide throughout the book.

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