Casual Vacancy 7: The Seven Part Ring Composition

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

Yale Review, Vol. 91 No. 4 (October 2003), pp. 64–80

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!

CV6 — Literary Alchemy: The Conjunction of Sex and Death

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.

Casual Vacancy 5: Barry Fairbrother and the Political Parable

Ms. Rowling suggested in 2007 that her next work would be a “political fairy tale,” though we don’t know if that pronouncement came before or after her in-flight inspiration about the subject matter and scenery of Casual Vacancy. Caught up as we are necessarily with the  realism of Krystall Weedon’s nightmare existence and descent to death, it’s easy to neglect the caricature-laden, even Dickenesque quality of this realism which makes it parable-like and an evident satire of the United Kingdom and its 21st Century political life.

The dot-to-dots here, to risk a translation of the correspondences I think we are meant to make as might in Gulliver’s Travels or Animal Farm, aren’t much of a reach even for an American who is essentially clueless about United Kingdom politics. Howard Mollinson is a story transparency for John Bull, the Whig-Tory pompous middle-class cipher of all things bourgeois and English. He wears the trappings of state in the novel, and, if he is not officially the Mayor of Padsford, he is the principal power holder.

His wife is the Queen, alas, in Brenda mode, whose blindness to her licentious husband’s more intimate relationship with his female business partner (the Capitalist regime ‘in bed’ with government) makes her as comically self-important and a clueless accessory to the evil done by Howard. She dreams of meeting the Queen because Ms. Rowling wants us to make this leap of imaginative association easily; Elizabeth II is no more Queen to her people, Ms. Rowling is all but saying, than the Middle Class deli wife of Padsford and her family’s political myopia.

In this allegorical depiction of the post socialist UK, of course, we need a ‘Late Great’ saint whom we find in Barry Fairbrother, who, though his name is meant to point to Barack Obama — ‘Barry’ is what President Obama was called by friends until well into his college years and, forgive me for translating the obvious, ‘Fair Brother’ is a name for a black man who acts like a fair-skinned person (think ‘Oreo‘) — is not meant to embody liberal disappointment with the Hope and Change candidate of 2008. At least not exclusively! Given Ms. Rowling’s familiarity with the life story and personal traits of Gordon Brown, he is the lamented, fallen star of the Left, whose biography, if anything but rags-to-riches economically, is about a heroic rise from the far periphery of British politics (Scotland!) as a champion of the poor.

The meaning of the parable is in the finish. John Bull denies the rights and needs of both the Weedon family, the disenfranchised other, and the Empire’s Legacy, the medical Sikhs who hold the cure to UK parochialism and self-adoration, so, when he needs public support when his life is in crisis consequent to the over-weight caused by his self-celebration (the need for an ambulance and doctor at his heart attack the morning after his birthday party), the doctor has been suspended and her life-saving heart surgeon-husband has been offended and the means of his deliverance has been sent to help their daughter’s attempted rescue of the drowned child John Bull despised. England winds up on life support, neither truly dead or alive, with the Queen and her son (David Cameron?) left as the gormless political players in charge.

I trust our HogPro All-Pro friends on the right side of the pond will refine or deny this exegesis as appropriate. Thanks in advance for that!

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.

[Read more…]

Casual Vacancy 3: ‘From Potter to Potty-Mouth,’ the Numbers

As the repeated and realistic cursing of characters throughout Casual Vacancy was the subject of comment in every review I read before reading Casual Vacancy, I decided to track the profanity instance by instance, an exercise I realize that will inevitably cause readers to imagine me at the movies with a click counter for ‘F’ and ‘S’ utterances or, a la the Harry Haters, a Hogwarts reader who flinches at every use of magic. Be that as it may, here are the numbers for your consideration:

Variations on ‘Fuck’ (140). ‘Shit’ (34), ‘Bloody’ (23), ‘Bitch’ (16), ‘Shag’ (12), ‘Cunt’ (8), and ‘Bastard’ (7). There are various unpleasantries about penises, lesbians, and masturbation but no one of more than five appearances. Cursing is part of the atmospheric fabric of the book, I think it’s fair to say, and I think we’re left to discuss (a) what effect the author was after in this besides shock and (b) how it impacted your experience of the work. Have at it!

Just as a starting point of conversation on the data, there are two pages on which characters say or think ‘fuck’ again and again and again, once nine times, another eleven times. There are also stretches of thirty and forty pages in which no one swears at all. Language defines worlds and experience, no?