Book Review : The Causal Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

index.phpWhen J.K. Rowling’s first novel written for an adult audience was released, the critics did not do it justice. Some complained that there was no magic in it — “in terms of wizardry or in terms of narrative sorcery,” according to Michiko Kakutani. Kakutani went on to say that the inhabitants of Pagford were “self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us.”

I disagree. First of all, the fact that the critic could pinpoint such descriptive characteristics illustrates Rowling’s prowess with defining well-developed, absorbing characters. You can’t help but think, “Well, that’s just so very like Parminder/Howard/Gavin/Mary to do/think/say something like that.”

Secondly, the small-mindedness of Rowling’s suburban characters speaks to themes she often talks about in interviews about her writing: mortality, courage, snobbishness. The seamier side of life in a small town is deftly told through interwoven stories about how different adults and teenagers in the small town react when one of their own drops dead. If the concerns and reactions of some of the town’s leading citizens seem self-absorbed and small-minded, that only speaks to Rowling’s point about the confining nature of suburbs.

Just as the Harry Potter series made me feel like I could sit down with Rowling and talk about how to entwine the magical with the everyday, this book snuck in themes that are near and dear to my heart: the impacts of bullying, the status-consciousness of the middle class suburbs, and that old writer’s standby: “pride goeth before a fall.”

What all of Rowling’s books have in common is minute attention to plot details; every single one of the many story lines is wrapped up in an ending that ties them together in a crescendo that leaves no room for misinterpretation. In the end Rowling’s message is clear: hypocrisy is not a victimless crime. Indifference to the poverty next door to the mansion has real-life consequences.

My favorite character development in the novel is the complicated descriptions of Krystal, a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks who inarguably makes repugnant decisions and treats others in a repugnant manner. Yet when you see how the “good citizens” dissect Krystal and her drug-addicted mother behind close doors, as if they were a failed social experiment thrust upon the town, you buy into Rowling’s steadfast insistence that, however stereotypical the Weedons may be, they are people and not statistics.

Most importantly, Rowling’s characters do not present as cardboard cutouts, and do not stay mired in their shallow side. From one situation to the next, no one character offers one stock reaction. The bully or braggard in one plot twist becomes the sympathetic underdog in the next one. The hopelessly status-conscious and judgmental Shirley Mollinson is complex enough to win the reader’s sympathy when the realities of her husband’s infidelity come crashing down in a cruel and ironic manner. The above-mentioned Parminder is clearly stigmatized by racism in the community, shows a sort of hard-nosed compassion for her patients, yet wins no sympathy when she cruelly berates and belittles her tormented daughter Sukhvinder. But because we have seen Parminder’s complex inner thoughts when she deals with the outside community, her evolution toward understanding and sympathy for her daughter is believable at the end where it could have come across as sappy in the hands of a less deft writer.

In the end, the characters are undone not by their outward status-seeking actions, but by their failure to express their inner thoughts in time to save themselves. The characters who walk into the sunshine out of their personal hell are the ones who are finally able to vocalize or act on the doubts that they have been secretively thinking throughout the book.

Rowling has said in interviews that the quality she admires most is courage; she has stated emphatically that it is Harry’s courage that saves him from one section to the next. Casual Vacancy plays upon this theme in a more complicated manner. Each character behaves outwardly as if status is the only thing that matters. Yet each harbors inward doubts and resentments toward the social hierarchy status-seeking creates. In the end, it is the characters who find the courage to either vocalize or act on their doubts and insecurities that walk out their personal hell and into the sunlight.


Ice, Ice, Baby

This is the co-culprit in my back injury. The other culprit is myself.

This is the co-culprit in my back injury. The other culprit is myself.

There’s a quote I’ve posted the wall above my writing desk: “Even Thoreau stopped staring at the pond long enough to write a book.” It’s from Stephen King’s On Writing.

This past month I’ve had to adopt a paraphrase quote of my own: Even Stephen King stopped writing long enough to heal. Then he went back to work.”

As I remember King’s version of events in that same book, when he was hit by a van and badly injured he had to stop writing until he was pain-free enough to sit and type at a computer. Then, before he was even well enough to climb stairs, his wife set up a temporary writing desk downstairs and he took up his writing again as soon as he could.

At the end of April, I had a mishap while walking downstairs with my rambunctious dog and landed smack on the base of my spine. With other medical issues already compromising my back health, the pain was immediate and intense: I could feel muscles pulling and pulsating from the middle of my back to my butt, and a sharp, piercing pain at the base of my spine made the walk back to my apartment — with the dog in tow — slow and painful. I called a friend who arranged my ride to the emergency room.

I was told in the ER that I had suffered a fracture of the first lumbar vertebrae, but this turned out to be erroneous: I learned later from my primary physician that the radiologist had noticed what appeared to be a chronic, older fracture of that vertebrae. A subsequent visit to my Scoliosis specialist yielded a third opinion: there was no fracture, merely a “change” due to the slow “stable” progression of my Scoliosis. He pointed out that the locus of my pain was at the bottom of my spine, while the affected vertebrae was in the middle of my back.

What these opinions meant to me emotionally was the resurrection of an old resentment I have against the medical community: if they can’t see something they can fix immediately, whatever pain you’re in is “chronic.” From my point of view, if the pain is directly connected to an injurious accident and you can’t go more than a few hours without narcotics, you have acute pain. Muscle and nerve injuries don’t show up on x-rays, MRIs, or CT scans. But they’re there, and they’re real. The clinical evidence, unfortunately, is limited to the amount of pain you’re in.

Yet there’s a sound reason for a doctor’s reluctance to label pain by itself as an acute injury: the only therapeutic treatment they can offer is physical activity. At the same time, to keep the cycle of pain from interfering with activity, an acutely injured patient has to rest for the first few days. After 9 years in a back brace and three back injuries as an adult, I know that managing pain is more of an art than a science: you apply ice and heat and if those have limited or no effect you rest and/or take a pain pill. The idea is to prevent the onset of pain from triggering an inflammatory cycle that causes more pain and inflammation.

As I came to accept that I was in for yet another slow recovery from chronic pain, I set goals for getting back to my writing. If I could get through 8 hours of work, I would ice up and write for half an hour in the evening. Didn’t happen.

I told my writing coach I’d better write my half-hour in the morning before the daily grind set in to cause minor aches and pains throughout the day.

That didn’t happen either.

I failed my first physical therapy goal: mild stretching every day between the first and second appointments. Even though stretching made me feel better, it just didn’t happen. Slipped right through my fingers without much conscious thought on my part. Just like my writing was slipping through my fingers. I was demoralized and near tears after a painful PT session in which I discovered I could only bike 1.5 minutes before fatigue set in.

My PT pointedly told me that if I’d followed my stretching program, and then still felt fatigued, she would be concerned. But her diagnosis was sharp and direct: I was too inactive.

So I set out, half-subconsciously, to “prove” there was an acute injury by meeting her expectations and doing the stretching. Lo and behold, within two days, I was able to take the wedge pillows to raise my head and knees off the bed. I was able to climb out of bed in the morning and walk to the kitchen without pain in my hips and that lurching feeling in my lower back. After four days of stretching, I obtained a free trial pass to a gym and put in six minutes on a recumbent bike.

The empowerment of being able to affect my physical recovery led to some emotional recovery: I had to let go of my resentment of the medical system if I was going to get back to my writing. I had to stop feeling sorry for myself and let go of my passive “acceptance” of my disabilities. Coming from the inside track of mobility issues, I don’t entirely agree with the analogy that you have to “fight” physical pain; I happen to notice that people who champion this attitude are usually those who aren’t starting out with a mobility deficit.

What I do believe is that working through pain requires being emotionally and spiritually present, and letting go of resentments and fears that prevent you from safely and gently pushing limitations so that you can rebuild yourself.

Lo and behold, mere hours after coming to this realization in the middle of the night, I’ve put in 45 minutes and actually finished a piece of writing.

This injury may have torn me down physically, but it helped to rebuild and gain new strength spiritually and emotionally.

My Dog Won’t Shut Up


This post was first published on January 11, 2011.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my dog. He’s a beauty, a tri-color-headed-white Sheltie. Much to tall and barrel-chested to be a purebred, but we were told by the shelter he is a purebred nonetheless.

He’s very affectionate, curling up with us on the couch, giving kisses, and jumping up to be petted. He does tend to do these things to excess, but considering Shelties are supposedly not very affectionate it’s a blessing that we were very enthusiastic about when we got him.

Over time, he’s learned the commands heel, down, come, and sit. Then there is the one command he has learned only selectively: “Quiet.” Specifically, he barks continually whenever I walk him. He barks on his way down the stairs. He barks as soon as he gets outside, perhaps to announce his presence to the world.

If the world doesn’t detect his presence on the first bark, there is a loooong 20-minute interval in which the world will find it out. Put simply, he barks and barks and barks. After ten months as his owner, there is a certain amount of shame in not being able to control his barking. True, he was an adult when we got him and it is harder to change the behaviors of an adult dog.

But he’s changed some of his barking behavior when he’s with Brendan. He will walk calmly down the stairs and remain calm if they don’t run into anybody.

Nobody can stop him if he sees another person, dog, cat, car, or butterfly. There’s some solace for me in the fact that barking is very much part of his nature.

Still . . . my dog won’t shut up.