Harley J. Sims

The Casual Vacancy: J.K. Rowling’s monstrosity

Harley J. Sims
By Harley Sims
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October 22, 2012 (Mercatornet.com) - Among the first 50 pages or so of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, it is difficult to say what makes the greatest impression. Perhaps it is a teenage boy’s reference to his father as a “self-satisfied f***er” and a “c**t”, labels which, amidst the repulsive squall of profanity that concludes the second chapter, stand out only because they are italicized. The same teen, later infatuated, is reported to masturbate at the thought of his love interest, the mere thought of her later leaving him “with an ache in his heart and in his balls”. Then there is the description of a five-year-old girl’s exposed vulva—“as though Father Christmas had popped up”, and the description of a used condom lying beside a doorstep—“like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub”. The cloud of f-words is meanwhile becoming ever thicker, on occasion becoming so abrasive and predictable that one flinches as one flips, each page promising a new eyeful of dirt.

While seemingly picked out like rotten cherries, these items do not misrepresent their crop. Situations and wording in the novel are equally off-putting. While ostensibly the story of a municipal election in the fictional English town of Pagford, The Casual Vacancy is about the dissolution, dysfunction, and misery modern audiences have been led to believe is lurking beneath any pleasant façade. It is, according to The New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, “depressingly clichéd […] like an odd mash-up of a dark soap opera like ‘Peyton Place’ with one of those very British Barbara Pym novels, depicting small-town, circumscribed lives.”

The book begins with a man—a parish councillor—dying on a street of an aneurism, collapsing before his wife into, what we, we are later told, was “an eruption of vomit and piss, a twitching pile of catastrophe”. The next chapter explores the arrant gleefulness of a family of political rivals at learning and spreading the news of his passing. Shirley Mollison even compares her elation to the birth of her own son: “the news of Barry Fairbrother’s sudden demise lay like a fat new baby to be gloated over by all her acquaintances”.

Keep going, and readers will encounter everything from wife and child-beating through drug addiction and self-mutilation to suicide and rape (two rapes, actually—one, graphically described, of a 16-year-old girl by her mother’s heroin-dealer, and possibly another, inflicted by the same man on her 3-year-old brother. Even Rowling demurs at describing this one). Pick a page: locating such material in The Casual Vacancy is as simple as spinning a roulette wheel. About the only thing missing is cannibalism.

For those who would object that a well-written novel about misery and depravity will indeed come across as miserable and depraved, The Casual Vacancy isn’t well written, either. Though it doesn’t attempt much, it mixes its metaphors (“break the frost”, “sliced […] like a demolition ball”) and presents a large number of awkward sentences whose thesaurus-assisted verbiage pretends sophistication (“The first effusion of Pagford’s outrage had annealed into a quieter, but no less powerful, sense of grievance).”

Perhaps most cloying of all are its politics, however—not liberalism, not progressivism, but leftyism—offering the clichéd, self-loathing-but-self-righteous left-wing extremism parodied even on left-leaning comedy such as 30 Rock and Modern Family. Vices are tragic manifestations of victimhood, men—particularly fathers—are pathetic, negligent, and/or abusive, while the only positive values and innocence to be found in the novel are confined to the token non-white couple.

Parminder and Vikram Jawanda are Sikhs, physically attractive, professionally accomplished (both are doctors), and who look to their faith and holy books for strength and guidance. The only time one of them truly breaks this respectable posture is when Parminder publicly rebukes a client and fellow councillor for believing that drug addicts are responsible for their own actions. She tells him that his obesity is as much a drain on the health care system as drug addiction, and storms away, having jeopardized her career in betraying their doctor-client confidentiality. Among the various misdemeanours of the novel, however, it is practically—and clearly intended to be—noble.

Rowling has stated that the worst criticism she could receive for her adult novel was that she should stick to writing children’s books. One should not be so sure about that; in erecting this ruin, she may have borrowed wood from the bridge. The Casual Vacancy and its hackneyed parade of misery and depravity represent Rowling’s simplistic understanding not just of adult literature, but of literature in general.

While some reviewers, including The Times’ Kakutani, have used the Harry Potter books as a gold standard—essentially soft-pedaling what The Casual Vacancy reveals about Rowling’s approach to fiction—one cannot deny the presence of smarmy self-righteousness, victimology, and stage-managed misery in the Harry Potter books as well. From the obvious example of the abusive Dursleys through bleach-blond racists to house-elf-slavery abolitionism, the books never were subtle in their analogies.

Till now, readers had the luxury of believing that it was all part of some timeless, heroic template, brilliantly recast and represented, irrespective of age and creed. Unfortunately, however, because Rowling’s understanding of readership is clearly based on raw content, with no investment whatsoever in sophistication, one now knows what was left out of Harry Potter.

There are many things one might learn here. While many writers and theorists—among them J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis—have spoken of literature as something to invigorate and empower our own lives, Rowling approaches fictional populations with the entrepreneurial ambitions of a pimp. With The Casual Vacancy, victims are lined up, exposed, and humiliated for what is assumed to be the ultimate pleasure of the audience, not to mention the handsome remuneration of their orchestrator. It is the opposite of catharsis, a clinically-controlled injection of venom for the privileged soul. The image of Rowling on the book jacket—richly dressed, antic smile, seated in a lavishly upholstered chair—is so incongruous with the novel’s contents and personae that it all seems nightmarishly surreal.

Rowling recently told The New York Times that she believed The Casual Vacancy to be one of the best things she has ever written, reinforcing a remark, made earlier to The Guardian, that she did not use a pseudonym because she felt it was braver to publish the novel under her own name. She asserts the influence of Charles Dickens and other celebrated Victorian writers; “The Casual Vacancy,” she says, “consciously harked back to the 19th -century traditions of Trollope, Dickens, and Gaskell… Any review that made reference to any of those writers would delight me.”

As it turns out, a comparison between Rowling and Dickens had already been made—not by a reviewer, but by Rowling’s own editor, Michael Pietsch. Rowling, for her part, has seemingly become accustomed to the association. In speaking of ending the Harry Potter series, for example, she addressed one of Dickens’s remarks from an 1850 edition of David Copperfield, where he reflected on the end of a two-year creative investment in the eponymous character. Rowling was unsympathetic: “To this I can only sigh, ‘try seventeen years, Charles.’” For such a professed admirer of Dickens (and intimate colleague, judging from her use of his Christian name), Rowling also seems to have overlooked the fact that David Copperfield follows many events from Dickens’s own youth—in the real world, rather than Hogwart’s—whereby his investment in the character must be reckoned in decades of reflection.

Perhaps it is best to let Dickens speak for himself, however. Though his works resound with the toil and lamentations of the downtrodden, including, yes, even drug addicts (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), he proves even and especially in matters of misery and victimhood, that literature is about good writing. Consider the situation of Alexandre Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, a man imprisoned in the Bastille for eighteen years:

“The faintness of his voice was pitiable and dreadful. It was not the faintness of physical weakness, though confinement and hard fare no doubt had their part in it. Its deplorably peculiarity was, that it was the faintness of solitude and disuse. It was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain. So sunken and suppressed it was, that it was like a voice underground. So expressive it was, of a hopeless and lost creature, that a famished traveller, wearied out by lonely wandering in a wilderness, would have remembered home and friends in such a tone before lying down to die.”

Northrop Frye once stated that “if any literary work is emotionally ‘depressing,’ there is something wrong with either the writing or the reader’s response.” As an indictment of bad fiction, it is shrewdly ambiguous, but here Dickens proves, as he does in countless other places, that good writing is like alchemy. Nothing it treats remains the base material which inspired it; even misery becomes gold, though chill to touch. Its brilliance works to bring us together as people, its common language to unite otherwise isolated experiences.

Either Rowling does not understand this, or she is utterly incapable of duplicating it. Either way, The Casual Vacancy is a monstrosity.

Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com. Reprinted with permission from Mercatornet.com

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A Planned Parenthood facility in Denver, Colorado
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Colorado judge tosses suit alleging Planned Parenthood used state funds to pay for abortions

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By Dustin Siggins

Alliance Defending Freedom "will likely appeal" a Monday court decision dismissing their suit alleging Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains illegally used state funds to pay for abortions, an ADF lawyer told LifeSiteNews.

The ADF lawsuit claims that $1.4 million went from state government agencies to a Planned Parenthood abortion affiliate through Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains.

Denver County District Court Judge Andrew McCallin dismissed the case on the basis that ADF could not prove the funds paid for abortions. But ADF maintains that funding an abortion facility is indirectly paying for abortions, which violates state law.

ADF senior counsel Michael Norton -- whose wife, former Colorado Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton, filed the lawsuit – told LifeSiteNews that "no one is above the law, including Colorado politicians who are violating our state’s constitution by continuing to fund Planned Parenthood’s abortion business with state taxpayer dollars."

"The State of Colorado even acknowledges that about $1.4 million of state taxpayer dollars flowed from Colorado government agencies through Planned Parenthood to its abortion affiliate. The Denver court seems to have agreed with that fact and yet granted motions to dismiss based on a technicality," said Norton.

According to Colorado law, "no public funds shall be used by the State of Colorado, its agencies or political subdivisions to pay or otherwise reimburse, either directly or indirectly, any person, agency or facility for the performance of any induced abortion." There is a stipulation that allows for "the General Assembly, by specific bill, [to] authorize and appropriate funds to be used for those medical services necessary to prevent the death of either a pregnant woman or her unborn child under circumstances where every reasonable effort is made to preserve the life of each."

According to court documents, the Colorado law was affirmed by state voters in 1984, with an appeal attempt rejected two years later. In 2001, an outside legal firm hired by Jane Norton -- who was lieutenant governor at the time -- found that Planned Parenthood was "subsidizing rent" and otherwise providing financial assistance to Planned Parenthood Services Corporation, an abortion affiliate. After the report came out, and Planned Parenthood refused to disassociate itself from the abortion affiliate, the state government stopped funding Planned Parenthood.

Since 2009, however, that has changed, which is why the lawsuit is filed against Planned Parenthood, and multiple government officials, including Democratic Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

According to ADF legal counsel Natalie Decker, the fact that Planned Parenthood sent funds to the abortion affiliate should have convinced McCallin of the merits of the case. "The State of Colorado and the Denver court acknowledged that about $1.4 million of state taxpayer dollars, in addition to millions of 'federal' tax dollars, flowed from Colorado government agencies through Planned Parenthood to its abortion affiliate," said Decker.

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"Without even having the facts of the case developed, the Denver court seems to have granted motions to dismiss filed by the State of Colorado and Planned Parenthood on grounds the term 'indirectly' could not mean what Ms. Norton and Governor Owens said it meant in 2002 when they defunded Planned Parenthood."

"That, of course, is the plain meaning of Colo. Const., Art. V, § 50 which was implemented by the citizens of Colorado, and the reason for Ms. Norton’s lawsuit."

Decker told LifeSiteNews that "Colorado law is very clear," and that the state law "prohibits Colorado tax dollars from being used to directly or indirectly pay for induced abortions."

She says her client "has been denied the opportunity to fully develop the facts of the case and demonstrate exactly what the Colorado tax dollars have been used for." Similarly, says Decker, it is not known "exactly what those funds were used for. At this time, there is simply no way to conclude that tax dollars have not been used to directly pay for abortions or abortion inducing drugs and devices."

"What we do know is that millions of Colorado tax dollars have flowed through Planned Parenthood to its abortion affiliate, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that those tax dollars are being used to indirectly pay for abortions."

A spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains did not return multiple requests for comment about the lawsuit.

The dismissal comes as Planned Parenthood fights an investigation by the state's Republican attorney general over a video by Live Action, as well as a lawsuit by a mother whose 13-year old daughter had an abortion in 2012 that she alleges was covered up by Planned Parenthood. The girl, who was being abused by her stepfather, was abused for months after the abortion.

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Fledgling high-tech pro-life group marks 2,000 babies saved: 2-3 saved per day

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Online for Life, the Dallas-based pro-life marketing agency, saved its two-thousandth unborn baby earlier this year and is well on its way to saving its three thousandth by 2015.

“We are getting better all the time at what we do,” says founder Brian Fisher. “It used to be one baby saved every four to six weeks and now its two or three a day.”

But the most significant save? “It was the very first one,” he says, recalling the phone call from a crisis centre a month after OFL’s 2012 startup.  “And for me personally it was just a massive turning point … because [of] all the work and the money and testing and the volunteers and everything that led up to that moment. All the frustration of that was washed away in an instant because a child had been rescued that was about to be killed.”

Though increasing market savvy has led Online for Life to expand offline, the core of the non-profit, donor-financed operation remains SEO -- search engine optimization -- targeting young women who have just discovered they are pregnant and gone onto the Web to find the nearest abortion clinic.

Instead, they find the nearest crisis pregnancy center at the top of their results page. Since OFL went online it has linked with a network of 41 such centers, including two of its own it started this year, in a positive feedback loop that reinforces effective messaging first at the level of the Web, then at the first telephone call between the clinic and the pregnant woman, and finally at the first face-to-face meeting.

“Testing is crucial,” says Fisher. “We test everything we do.” Early on, Online for Life insisted the clinics it served have an ultrasound machine, because the prevailing wisdom in the prolife movement was that “once they saw their baby on ultrasound, they would drop the idea of having an abortion.” While the organization still insists on the ultrasound, its own testing and feedback from the CPCs indicates that three quarters of the women they see already have children. “They’ve already seen their own children on ultrasound and are still planning to abort.” So ultrasound images have lost their punch.

OFL has had to move offline to reach a significant minority who have neither computers, tablets, or cell phones.  Traditional electronic media spots as well as bus ads and billboards carry the message to them.

As well, says Fisher, “unwanted pregnancy used to be a high-school age problem; now that’s gone down in numbers and the average age of women seeking abortion has gone up to 24.” By that age, he says, they are “thoroughly conditioned by the abortion culture. Even before they got pregnant, they have already decided they would have an abortion if they did get pregnant.”

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What they need—and fast, in the first two minutes of the first phone call—is sympathy, support, and a complete absence of judgement. Online for Life is always gathering information from its network on what responses are most effective—and this can vary city to city. The organization offers training to clinic volunteers and staff that stresses a thorough knowledge of the services on tap. “Any major city has all sorts of services—housing, education, health—available,” says Fisher.

The problem that OFL was designed to address was the crisis pregnancy centers’ market penetration. Three percent of women with unwanted pregnancies were reaching out to the CPCs, and seven per cent of those who did reach out were having their babies. “So about 2.1 children were being saved for every 1,000 unwanted pregnancies,” says Fisher. “That’s not nearly enough.”

So Fisher and two fellow volunteers dreamed of applying online marketing techniques to the problem in 2009. Three years later Fisher was ready to leave his executive position at an online marketing agency to go full-time with the life-saving agency. Now they have 63 employees, most of them devoted to optimizing the penetration in each of the markets served by their participating crisis centers.

The results speak for themselves. Where OFL has applied its techniques, especially with its own clinics, as many as 15-18 percent of the targeted population of women seeking abortions get directed to nearby crisis pregnancy centers. “It depends on the centres’ budgets and on how many volunteers they have to be on the phones through the day and night,” he says. “But we are going to push it higher. We hope to save our 2,500th child by the end of the year.”

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Shock: UK mom abandons disabled daughter, keeps healthy son after twin surrogacy

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By Pete Baklinski

A UK woman who is the biological mother of twins born from a surrogate mom, has allegedly abandoned one of the children because she was born with a severe muscular condition, while taking the girl's healthy sibling home with her.

The surrogate mother, also from the UK — referred to as "Jenny" to protect her identity — revealed to The Sun the phone conversation that took place between herself and the biological mother over the fate of the disabled girl.

“I remember her saying to me, “She’d be a f****** dribbling cabbage! Who would want to adopt her? No one would want to adopt a disabled child,’” she said.

Jenny, who has children of her own, said she decided to become a surrogate to “help a mother who couldn’t have children.” She agreed to have two embryos implanted in her womb and to give birth for £12,000 ($20,000 USD).

With just six weeks to the due date, doctors told Jenny she needed an emergency caesarean to save the babies. It was not until a few weeks after the premature births that the twin girl was diagnosed with congenital myotonic dystrophy.

When Jenny phoned the biological mother to tell her of the girl’s condition, the mother rejected the girl.

Jenny has decided along with her partner to raise the girl. They have called her Amy.

“I was stunned when I heard her reject Amy,” Jenny said. “She had basically told me that she didn’t want a disabled child.”

Jenny said she felt “very angry” towards the girl’s biological parents. "I hate them for what they did.”

The twins are now legally separated. A Children and Family Court has awarded the healthy boy to the biological mother and the disabled girl to her surrogate.

The story comes about two weeks after an Australian couple allegedly abandoned their surrogate son in Thailand after he was born with Down syndrome, while taking the healthy twin girl back with them to Australia.

Rickard Newman, director of Family Life, Pro-Life & Child and Youth Protection in the Diocese of Lake Charles, called the Australian story a “tragedy” that “results from a marketplace that buys and sells children.”

“Third-party reproduction is a prism for violations against humanity. IVF and the sperm trade launched a wicked industry that now includes abortion, eugenics, human trafficking, and deliberate family fragmentation,” he said. 

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