J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series opens with the story of The Boy Who Lived. The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for adults, opens with the story of The Man Who Died. The man in question is Barry Fairbrother, a town councilor in Pagford, a middle-class village in the shadow of a large, industrial city. The book is not his story but Pagford’s, rife with acrimony, class-consciousness, and the endless boredom of village life. This is not the coming of age of a boy wizard; it is a glimpse into the mundane life of a middle-aged town.
It’s impossible for me to read Rowling’s first adult novel without thinking about her wildly successful books for children. I am a part of the millennial generation who grew up comparing ourselves to Harry, Ron, and Hermione, and our sundry adventures to the tribulations of a boy wizard charged with saving the world from true evil. The Harry Potter books were and remain—even after a slew of movies and a universe of themed merchandise—good stories. The books are archetypal mythology—there is a good and there is an evil, there will be struggle and eventually good will triumph.
That’s not to say evil will triumph in The Casual Vacancy or even that there is an evil at all. No dragons are slain, no brooms are ridden, and no one can speak to snakes. Couples argue, teenage boys masturbate, and small-time politicians are locked in endless and meaningless fights in person and on the town council’s treacherous Web site.
What Rowling does retain from her earlier work is a deft ability to create a complicated universe of characters, each of whom feels distinct and interesting. We identify as readers with more than one single protagonist, and as a result we look at this diverse group of people as part of a single, living organism—the depressing town of Pagford. With this style, the book claims its place in the growing genre of darkly comic contemporary novels by young novelists like Jonathan Franzen or Rick Moody, which also rely on large casts of complicated characters to offer diverse perspectives of a single event or place. Eschewing an overarching narrative, Rowling allows us to see the dreary town again and again through the eyes of other town councilors, their children, their friends, and a horde of shopkeepers, journalists, and townspeople.
Where the novel falls flat, however, is when Rowling relies on this technique to carry the story in lieu of a strong narrative voice. With the Harry Potter series, she wrote a complicated set of plots with myriad characters, and yet every character is bound somehow into the overall good-versus-evil structure of the novels. With The Casual Vacancy, however, she has written the stories of a bevy of characters who are woven together only by the sheer accident of time and place. A mundane story, told even from the most diverse perspectives, remains mundane. J.K. Rowling has announced that her next novel will be another book for children, set once again in the Harry Potter universe. I’m looking forward to a return to Good versus Evil.