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Post-Potter effort vacant of magic

Sam Stryker | Friday, October 26, 2012

Magic. It’s what defined the Harry Potter series, both in the literal and figurative sense. There were the wands, the Quidditch, the dragons and the Horcruxes – that’s all magic, to be sure. But what truly captivated the reader’s mind was the literary magic author J.K. Rowling conjured up – a richly-textured world, finely detailed environs and most importantly, meticulously developed characters.

Sadly, Rowling’s first post-“Potter” effort, “The Casual Vacancy,” is, for lack of a better term, casually vacant of any magic. The characters may be well thought out, and the tiny fictional English village of Pagford that the novel takes place in may seem like a terrifyingly real place, but something is missing – literary magic.

A post-“Potter” hangover of sorts may have been expected from Rowling – after all, her series of books is the best-selling of all time, having sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. But at the same time, Rowling is one of the most talented authors of her generation, having enchanted readers of all ages with her Hogwarts tales. Why should she not have succeeded with her first foray into adult novels?

Unfortunately, “The Casual Vacancy” tries too hard to be just that – an adult novel. The premise of the story sounds interesting. A town councilor dies of a brain aneurysm, and the ensuing election for his replacement brings to a roiling boil what had previously been simmering class warfare in Pagford. Along the way, Rowling tosses in every calamity and societal malady available – drug use, suicide, rape, infidelity – like a sickening shopping list of the warts of humanity.

It isn’t bad to show the underbelly of society – “Harry Potter” dealt with some pretty mature themes – but the nonstop barrage lacks focus, as if Rowling was looking to check off a list, hitting every one of mankind’s woes with no real thought to how they contributed to the overall plot.

Part of the magic is lost in “The Casual Vacancy” when Rowling not only loses focus in trying to portray the dregs of small-town English society, but also when she does not provide a central character that draws in the reader.. Imagine if “Harry Potter” only had an ensemble of Seamus Finnigan, Dolores Umbridge, Ollivander and no Harry, Ron or Hermione. No one, not even the die-hard “Potter” fans, would ever enjoy such a tale. I found myself spending more time than I should trying to iron down in my mind all of the characters in “The Casual Vacancy” when I should have been enjoying the book.

Compounding this issue is the fact that the reader simply does not care for the characters in the novel. Every single character has a signature fault, whether it is pomposity, promiscuity or addiction. Characters certainly should never have to be painted as good or bad in black and white terms. One cannot deny the heroes in “Harry Potter” were flawed – Harry was proud, Hermione was a know-it-all and Ron was, well, Ron – but these flaws were balanced by positive traits. On the other hand, by the time I was able to sort the multitude of characters in “The Casual Vacancy” apart, I was only able to distinguish them by their unpleasant traits, not their names. It is hard to fully enjoy a book when every single one of the characters is so unabashedly dreadful.

I had high hopes for “The Casual Vacancy.” I was expecting a black comedy of epic proportions, an exposé of small-town British life. Instead, I received 503 pages of misery. It may be harsh in comparing the book to “Harry Potter” when Rowling should in no way have to match the magic she conjured in the series. After all, I wouldn’t want to have to live up to say, my illustrious performance in my high school European history class.

But as an avid “Potter” fan, someone who rereads the seven books every summer and dressed up for multiple midnight movie premieres, I cannot help but be more than a little disappointed with Rowling’s effort in “The Casual Vacancy.” In a way, I am not so much upset with the book itself as I am with Rowling. If any other author churned this book out, I would say the characters are dreary, but nevertheless the pages kept turning.

But seeing the name “J.K. Rowling” on the cover comes with astronomical expectations. I wasn’t expecting magic in the literal sense, but was looking to be charmed by Rowling’s pen. Unfortunately, there was no literary magic within the pages of “The Casual Vacancy.”