None of them was Barry. He had been a living example of what they proposed in theory…Did they not see what hopeless advocates they were, compared to the man who had died?
Though there was a lot of buzz amongst Potter fans about the release of a new J.K. Rowling book—one written exclusively for adults—there has been a sobering lack of electricity for The Casual Vacancy since its release this past September. Back in the fall, the Huffington Post ran an early survey of worldwide news critics, and concluded with: “meh.” The loudest naysayer was surely the NYT Book Review who called it a story about the worst kinds of muggles, “self-absorbed, small-minded, snobbish and judgmental folks, whose stories neither engage nor transport us.”
It’s hard not to attach one’s reading of The Casual Vacancy with any kind of emotional transport to Hogwarts, and yet it is obvious, perhaps too much so, that Rowling has gone to great lengths to untether herself altogether. This is likely why so many reviews have made a fuss about it being “depressingly clichéd,” or trying too hard to “require a feeling for contemporary social milieus.” She has gathered in this novel a collection of depressives, control freaks, skanks, and dropouts, and readers, including the critics, have projected it as an overcorrecting attempt at something new.
It is undeniable that Vacancy ventures into the grotesque, and Rowling certainly lends monstrosity to each of her characters with broad strokes, but while this even distribution of ugliness may seem bizarre, even fantastic, her purpose is clear.
The plot centers around the small English community of Pagford, and the recent death of its beloved councilman Barry Fairbrother. While Fairbrother dies in the first pages of the book, he is certainly the novel’s main character. Every other character is connected to him, or finds themselves connected to him in the wake of his death. Fairbrother is, as the name implies, Pagford’s messianic figure; readers discover he had always been an outsider, born in the housing projects on the outskirts of Pagford, but had become an eminent and warm leader of the community, an advocate for the disadvantaged and forgotten, a beloved friend and husband and father. Before his death, he had been in defense of the local housing project from which he came, and the struggling addiction clinic. The control of these issues, in the “casual vacancy” left in Barry’s seat, are now the source of the novel’s drama.
There’s Howard and Shirley Mollison, the old Pagford shield, who had been Barry’s rivals in the council before he dies, and continue to sit on it now, hoping their son will fill Barry’s post. There’s Colin Wall, the school superintendent and dear friend of Barry’s, with a crippling anxiety disorder, who also attempts to take on Barry’s lionized persona. There’s the overachieving Jawanda family—two doctors who took to Barry’s welcome, being outsiders themselves, and now seek to fight for Barry’s cause in his absence. There’s Kay Bawden, the new, attractive social worker in town who finds herself suddenly in the mix. And then there’s each family’s children—desperately reactive to and resentful of the way their parents want them to be Barry.
And then there’s Krystal Weedon, the representative skanky, chavi highschooler, who grows up in the same projects as Fairbrother, who has a junkie for a mom and a full-time parenting job with her little brother. In a word, she is the “least of these,” the one in whom Barry spends most of his energy trying to help, the one in whom the old Pagforders would just as soon see re-districted. Fairbrother is obviously the only character who saw anything there: he had coached her in rowing, had spent time trying to help her family.
She is also a picture of the void that is left in Barry’s wake. Even Fairbrother’s disciples are incapable of the kind of love demanded for the Krystal Weedons of the world: they understand the principle of this love, but they naturally stand in opposition to its gratuity. They tell their children to steer clear of her. They fear, like their blueblood opponents, what a world of Krystal Weedons would mean for Pagford, something Fairbrother never would have worried about.
The French phenomenologist Jean-Louis Chrétien talks about the gifts that come by way of wounding. In The Unforgettable and Unhoped For, he writes, “It is the very event of a wound by which our existence is altered and opened, and becomes itself the site of the manifestation of what it responds to.”
This is the essential thrust of The Casual Vacancy. Fairbrother’s love is widely excessive and his beloved’s responses are excessively self-oriented. Even for the ones who want to carry on his “ministry”, their paltry imitations of his love, in his absence, are merely neurotic projections of what they think they should do. While the entire cast is undeniably compelled by the love of Fairbrother, the presence of his absence casts a pall over the entire town. The town, in short, is wounded by the loss of their loving lord, and the wound itself becomes the site of the town’s fragile, awkward, and counterproductive responses.
There is no better portrayal of this than “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.” During the election season, the Parish Council website is hacked by different teenagers looking for an outlet to share their frustrations with the various candidates. For example, Colin Wall’s son writes—in anger—about his father’s debilitating anxiety disorder. Parminder Jawanda hacks the site and writes about her mother’s intensity and expectations, the root of them being a deep romantic insecurity. All of these posts have aspects of truth—while being drawn up in bitterness—and they are posted under the anonymous byline “The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother.”
Rowling illustrates the internal intensity of these moments, and points out with greater perspective that no one really cares. While Colin Wall reads the words of “The Ghost” as though from an eternal, unbending Voice, and misses work for several days in a row, in the throes of his own self-defeat—no one else cares. He Googles his name, thinking suddenly a wave of new gossip sites will be constructed in his honor, and no one has really even read it. In doing so, Rowling builds an anthropology: we are both ludicrously insecure and ludicrously self-aggrandizing. We may worry that everyone hates us—but that worry also means we think everyone thinks about us.
The Ghost of Barry Fairbrother, too, is a picture of our impulsive image of God, and it is always a God of Revenge:
Shirley felt a special, secret kinship with the Ghost. He had chosen her website as the forum where he would expose the hypocrisy of Howard’s opponents, and this, she felt, entitled her to the pride of the naturalist who has constructed a habitat in which a rare species deigns to nest. But there was more to it than that. Shirley relished the Ghost’s anger, his savagery and audacity. She wondered who he might be, visualizing a strong, shadowy man standing behind herself and Howard, on their side, cutting a path for them through the opponents who crumpled as he slayed them with their own ugly truths.
The Ghost, then, becomes what Barry Fairbrother never was. Instead he is a concoction of his beloved’s misunderstanding.
There is hope, though. Despite the fact that Pagford is wounded by the loss of their Councilman, this wound isn’t finished speaking, and the speaking may just come from the “least of these,” who is given something to say. From the reverberations of many misunderstandings and divisions, a casual vacancy–casual because it is widespread, the wound in everyman–still waits to be filled.