At one point in Annie Hall Woody Allen’s character muses that life is essentially divided into the horrible and the miserable. On the evidence of The Casual Vacancy J.K.Rowling would seem to agree, though possibly with the caveat that a lot of us are often both. This is a novel that’s hyper-caustic in its anger and disgust at the hypocrisies and insularity of small-town attitudes, but it also reads like a veritable encyclopedia of woe, with even the more sympathetic characters given enough flaws and weaknesses to make you want to withdraw from human relationships altogether and go and live in a yurt on a mountainside somewhere. Redemptive it most surely isn’t.
It is however a testament to Rowling’s skills as a storyteller and a close observer of the awkwardnesses of social interactions that the book turns out to be as grimly compelling as other famously winceworthy entertainments, such as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen or Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. The setting is the well-to-do market town of Pagford and the plot is kicked off by the sudden death by aneurysm of a popular and progressive local councillor, whose support for a down-at-heel estate notorious for being a den of vice and immorality has long been a thorn in the side of the more conservative elements of the town’s citizenry. The book doesn’t really unfold in the way you might expect, as an account of an election campaign to fill this “casual vacancy” – instead it uses the unhappy event as a catalyst to expose a number of underlying tensions and rivalries and to give a few of the less privileged inhabitants of the town opportunities to puncture the ambitions and pretensions of those who assume they have an automatic right to authority. The story is impressively multi-stranded and holds together convincingly and unpredictably, although one or two of the plot contrivances seem slightly unlikely and the ending is a bit close to straight melodrama.
Where the novel really impresses, and at times shocks, is in its vivid depictions of cruelty, callousness and depravity. We get school bullying, parental abuse, joyless teenage sex, self-harm and heroin dependence just for starters, all described unflinchingly, though without gratuitous relish. Later on things get even worse. Rowling gets inside the heads of her characters and we can usually see what’s motivating them to visit misery on their families or acquaintances at the same time as being appalled by it. She’s got a knack for distilling the techniques people use for dodging serious engagement with each other (I particularly like “it was wonderful how you could obscure an emotional issue by appearing to seek precision”) and some of the abrasive encounters are presented in such a raw and acute manner that you feel that they must be drawn from her personal experience.
Whether Rowling has any solution to, or strategy for, the dreadful and unnecessary woundings that people inflict on each other and themselves she provides copious examples of here is, on the other hand, not that clear. This book feels more like a rant or a roar than a manifesto. Whatever it is, it’s effective. I wasn’t expecting much more than a well-plotted social satire from The Casual Vacancy, but it’s clearly a book coming straight from the heart.
The Desolation Of Smaug, the second and middle part of Peter Jackson’s ludicrously over-extended adaptation of J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Hobbit, is just as padded out as its predecessor with gratuitous sequences of horrible orcs hunting our heroes but nonetheless seems to flow considerably better. This may be because it’s starting to feel that Bilbo and his dwarfy mates are actually getting somewhere in their convoluted journey to the Lonely Mountain and the usurping dragon within, or it might have something to do with the variety and richly textured realisation of the places we get to visit: a spooky, cobwebby forest, the treetop palace of an Elven lord, the damp and rundown platforms and walkways of Laketown (particularly liked this location, a bit like a Poundland Venice in the Fens) and finally the treasure strewn halls of the dwarves’ former kingdom. We get man-eating spiders, spectacular flypasts round forbidding ruined castles precariously balanced on the sides of mountains, about half a dozen long and complicated battle bits in which Orlando Bloom and Evangeline Lilly prove over and over and over again how great elves are at kicking goblin butt and, as the master of Lakeland, Stephen Fry doing his addled aristo routine in a quite awesomely preposterous wig. Best of all we eventually get a one to one between Martin Freeman’s Bilbo and the Benedict Cumberbatch voiced dragon Smaug (Watson, meet Holmes), and like its counterpoint Bilbo/Gollum scene in the first film it stands head, shoulders and menacing scaly appendages above everything else – it’s creepy, unbearably tense and was the only point in the film when even the young children in the audience I was in fell silent. Elsewhere, Ian McKellen’s Gandalf continues his tradition of abandoning his charges just when they need his help most in order to keep mysterious appointments in pointlessly perilous places, and Richard Armitage’s Thorin carries on managing his team badly with a winning mixture of impulsiveness, resentment and arrogance, like he’s been hastily over-promoted. This is a film that there’s really not much recommending, as you’ll either not be interested or will have bought your ticket and ordered the DVD already, but it delivers more or less everything you require it to and once someone’s done a fan edit that cuts out all the endless crossbow and beheading bits it’ll be pretty damn zippy. My chief worry is that we leave the story very close to the end of book, if I’m remembering it rightly – how on Middle Earth is Jackson going to wring a final three hour film out of one dragon attack, one battle and a bit of mopping up? Will it turn into a musical?
I’m a bit wary of award winning literary novels, usually finding myself bewildered by the glacial pace and the sense that terribly sophisticated insights into human nature are sailing several miles over my head whenever I attempt to give one a go. I did however find myself becoming more and more fascinated by Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries the deeper I got into it, to the extent that I wanted to read it again as soon as I’d finished it, and for an 800 page doorstop of a book like this that’s pretty impressive.
The Luminaries is a historical novel, set in a remote New Zealand gold-mining settlement in 1866 where a chain of mysterious and possibly nefarious events have aroused concern among certain of the community’s professional men. There’s a death, a disappearance, a fraud, an opium overdose and sundry other vendettas and loyalties to be considered and to this end a meeting has been called in the parlour of a hotel, a meeting that is inadvertently interrupted by a new arrival in town. Sensing that this smart, discreet and intelligent young man might prove a useful neutral sounding board the motley fellowship consent to relate to him their various involvements in and viewpoints on the situation and gradually a bigger picture starts to emerge. Over the course of the next two months other dramatic incidents thicken the plot further: a seance, a court case and at least one crime of passion. It’s all pretty complicated, with particular events often being multiply reported from different points of view, but the strands eventually weave together delightfully and logically, and my slight confusion at the end about some of the finer detail is certainly down to me skimming some of the set-up chapters rather than any failure of Catton.
The novel reminded me in quite a few ways of Wilkie Collins, particularly The Moonstone, though there’s much less overt comedy here and probably not so much interest in satirising social hierarchies. What Catton brings instead is a formidable mastery of structure: while the first, long, section feels slightly rambly it becomes clear as you press on that the drawstrings on the drama are being incrementally tightened, with action and revelation taking more and more precedence over description and atmosphere with every new chapter. Each of the twelve sections is shorter than the one before, in imitation of a waning moon, and there’s also a handy character chart whereby all the main players are associated with either an astrological sign or a celestial body – while it’s not necessary to take any notice of this in order to read or understand the book it certainly helps as an organising principle and as a way of keeping track of who’s who among the many characters (it also makes sense of the somewhat cryptic chapter titles). Her writing style is clear and fluent, and while it’s as convincing as it needs to be as a genuine nineteenth century confection it never distracts by lapsing into pastiche.
In some ways its effect is similar to dense, multi-layered films like Magnolia or The Prestige or Nashville in that a second viewing in each of those cases really helped to clarify and cast light on a whole bunch of complicated and intricate connections and relationships. I’m not a particularly patient reader and have a bad habit of speeding carelessly through passages that seem overly descriptive and mood-setting but by the closing sections of this book I wanted to make sure I paid close attention to every detail, such was the care and ingenuity the author had put into her precise and pleasingly labyrinthine plotting. This is a book to take with you if you ever have to spend a week or two somewhere remote, rainy and lacking internet access – while it’s slow to get going it will repay the dedicated reader who can resist distraction handsomely.