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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Jonathon van Maren Jonathon van Maren Follow Jonathon

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Arguments don’t have genitals

Jonathon van Maren Jonathon van Maren Follow Jonathon
By Jonathon van Maren

“As soon as he grows his own uterus, he can have an opinion.”

That was a comment left on The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada’s Facebook page by a woman who presumably opposes men speaking out against misogyny, domestic abuse, rape culture, and female genital mutilation as well. Apparently, you see, male genitals disqualify people from speaking out on various human rights issues deemed by women who define themselves by their uteruses while protesting angrily against being defined by their uteruses as “women’s issues.”

Which abortion isn’t, by the way. It’s a human rights issue.

To break it down really simply for our confused “feminist” friends: Human beings have human rights. Human rights begin when the human being begins, or we are simply choosing some random and arbitrary point at which human beings get their human rights. If we do not grant human rights to all human beings, inevitably some sub-set of human beings gets denied protection by another group with conflicting interests. In this case, of course, it is the abortion crowd, who want to be able to kill pre-born children in the womb whenever they want, for any reason they want.

Science tells us when human life begins. Pro-abortion dogma is at worst a cynical manoeuvre to sacrifice the lives of pre-born human beings for self-interest, and at best an outdated view that collapsed feebly under the weight of new discoveries in science and embryology. But the abortion cabal wants to preserve their bloody status quo at all costs, and so they make ludicrous claims about needing a uterus to qualify for a discussion on science and human rights.

Click "like" if you are PRO-LIFE!

In fact, feminists love it when men speak up on abortion, as long as we’re reading from their script, which is why the carnivorous feminists have such a support system among the Deadbeat Dads for Dead Babies set and the No Strings Attached Club.

Male abortion activists have even begun to complain about “forced fatherhood,” a new cultural injustice in which they are expected to bear some responsibility for fathering children with women they didn’t love enough to want to father children with, but did appreciate enough to use for sex. Casual fluid swaps, they whine, should not result in custody hearings.

This is not to mention a genuine social tragedy that has men forcing or pressuring women to have abortions or abandoning them when they discover that the woman is, indeed, pregnant.

Or the fact that abortion has assisted pimps, rapists, and misogynists in continuing the crimes of sex trafficking, sexual abuse, and sex-selection abortion.

And coming against these disgusting trends are thousands of men in the pro-life movement who believe that shared humanity means shared responsibility, and that when the weak and vulnerable are robbed of their rights, we have to stand up and speak out.

We are not at all convinced by the feminist argument that people should think with their reproductive organs or genitals. We think that the number of people currently doing that has perhaps contributed to the problems we face. And we refuse to be told that protecting the human rights of all human beings is “none of our business” and “outside of our interests.”

Arguments don’t have genitals, feminists. It’s a stupid argument trying to protect a bloody ideology.

Reprinted with permission from CCBR.


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Rachel Daly

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Gvmt strikes UK Catholic school admission policy that prefers Mass attendees

Rachel Daly
By Rachel Daly

St. Joseph's Catholic Primary School in Epsom, England, was ordered to change its admissions policy after it was ruled discriminatory by the nation's Office of Schools Adjudicator, according to Your Local Guardian. St. Joseph's reportedly had been granting preferred acceptance to students whose families attended Mass at the affiliated church.

St. Joseph’s School is for students from age 4 to 11 and describes itself as “enjoy[ing] a high level of academic success.” The school furthermore places high priority on its Catholic identity, affirming on its homepage that “We place prayer and worship at the center of everything we do.”

The school states in its current admissions policy that it was "set up primarily to serve the Catholic community in St Joseph’s Parish" and that when the applicant pool exceeds 60 students, its criteria for prioritizing students includes "the strength of evidence of practice of the faith as demonstrated by the level of the family's Mass attendance on Sundays." 

Opponents of this policy reportedly argue that since donations are asked for at Mass, it could allow donation amounts to influence acceptance, and that forcing non-accepted local students to seek education elsewhere imposes a financial burden upon their families. 

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As Your Local Guardian reports, the adjudicators dismissed claims that donation amounts were affecting school acceptance, given that it is impossible to track donations. Nonetheless, the adjudicators maintained that "discrimination ... potentially arises from requiring attendance at the church rather than residency in the parish."

The Office of Schools Adjudicators, according to its website, is appointed by the United Kingdom’s Secretary of State of Education, to perform such functions as mediating disputes over school acceptances. The Office's ruling on St. Joseph's will require the school to release a revised admissions policy, which is expected in the next few days.

Reprinted with permission from the Cardinal Newman Society.


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Carolyn Moynihan

African women at risk of HIV, hostages to birth control

Carolyn Moynihan
By Carolyn Moynihan

Which should be the priority for a health organisation: preventing an incurable disease, or preventing a natural function that might have adverse physical consequences?

Preventing the disease, you would think. But the World Health Organisation would rather expose African women to HIV-AIDS than withdraw its support from a suspect method of birth control, arguing that childbirth is also risky in Africa. Riskier, apparently, than the said contraceptive. And at least one of WHO’s major partners agrees.

This is one of the stories you will not have read in coverage of the International AIDS Conference held in Melbourne last week, despite the fact that WHO made an announcement about it during the conference and the findings of a highly relevant study were presented there.

The story is this: there is increasing evidence that the method of contraception preferred by family planning organisations working in Africa (and elsewhere) facilitates the transmission of HIV. The method is the progesterone injection in the form of either DMPA (Depo Provera, the most common) or NET-En (Noristerat).

Millions of women in sub-Saharan Africa receive the injection every three months. The method overcomes problems of access. It can be given by nurses or health workers. A wife need not bother her husband for any special consideration; the teenage girl need not remember to take a pill.

But for 30 years evidence has been accumulating that, for all its “effectiveness” in controlling the number of births, the jab may also be very effective in increasing the number of people with HIV.

Three years ago at another AIDS conference in Rome, researchers who had analysed data from a number of previous studies delivered the disturbing news that injectables at least doubled the risk of infection with HIV for women and their male partners.

That study had its weaknesses but one of the experts present in Rome, Charles Morrison of FHI 360 (formerly Family Health International, a family planning organisation that also works in AIDS prevention), considered it a “good study” and subsequently led another meta-analysis that addressed some of the issues with previous research.

Last week at the Melbourne conference he presented the results. His team had re-analysed raw data on the contraceptive use of more than 37,000 women in 18 prospective observational studies. Of these women, 28 percent reported using DMPA, 8 percent NET-En, 19 percent a combined oral contraceptive pill, and 43 percent no form of hormonal contraception. A total of 1830 women had acquired HIV while in a study.

The analysis showed that both injectables raised the risk of infection by 50 percent:

Compared to non-users [of any hormonal contraceptive], women using DMPA had an elevated risk of infection (hazard ratio 1.56, 95% CI 1.31-1.86), as did women using NET-En (1.51, 95% CI 1.21-1.90). There was no increased risk for women using oral contraceptives.

Similarly, comparing women using injections with those using oral contraceptives, there was an elevated risk associated with DMPA (1.43, 95% CI 1.23-1.67) and NET-En (1.30, 95% CI 0.99-1.71).

Morrison also noted:

The results were consistent in several subgroup and sensitivity analyses. However, when only studies which were judged to be methodologically more reliable were included, the increased risk appeared smaller.

Morrison acknowledged that observational studies such as the FHI analysis depended on have their limitations. He is looking for funding to conduct a randomised controlled study – something that, after 30 years of suspicions and evidence, still has not been done.

So what is his advice to the birth control industry? Stop using this stuff in regions with a high prevalence of HIV until we are sure that we are not feeding an epidemic?

No.

One reason is that FHI is at least as interested in contraception as it is in HIV prevention. Though its website reflects a broad range of development activities, its core business is integrating birth control programmes with HIV prevention. The WHO – one of its partners -- describes the US based, 83 percent US government funded non-profit as “a global health and development organization working on family planning, reproductive health and HIV/AIDS.”

Another reason is that FHI 360 has a vital stake in precisely the kind of contraceptives that are under suspicion. Its annual report refers to:

Our trailblazing work in contraceptive research and development continues, as we develop and introduce high-quality and affordable long-acting contraceptives for women in low-income countries. Research is under way to develop a new biodegradable contraceptive implant that would eliminate the need for removal services. We are also working with partners to develop an injectable contraceptive that would last for up to six months. Currently available injectables require reinjections monthly or quarterly, which can be challenging where health services are limited.

That project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.

So Morrison did not argue in Melbourne for restrictions on the use of injectables, and neither did the WHO, whose representative at the conference outlined the UN body’s new guidelines on contraception and HIV. Mary Lyn Gaffield said a review of studies up to – but not including Morrison’s – did not warrant a change to WHO’s policy that DMPA and NET-En should be available, without restriction, in areas of high HIV prevalence.

The most WHO will advise is that women should be informed of the risk:

“Women at high risk of HIV infection should be informed that progestogen-only injectables may or may not increase their risk of HIV acquisition. Women and couples at high risk of HIV acquisition considering progestogen-only injectables should also be informed about and have access to HIV preventive measures, including male and female condoms.”

Condoms? How do they defend such cynicism? By equating the risk of HIV with the risks of motherhood – complications of pregnancy or childbirth, maternal death and the effect on infants... And yet motherhood remains risky precisely because 90 percent of the world’s effort is going into contraception!

Seven years ago a meeting of technical experts convened by WHO to study the injectables-HIV link showed the reproductive health establishment worried about that issue, to be sure, but also concerned that funding was flowing disproportionately to HIV-AIDS programmes, setting back the cause of birth control. The integration of family planning and HIV prevention spearheaded by FHI 360 looks like they have found an answer to that problem.

Whether African women are any better off is very doubtful. They remain pawns in a game that is, above all, about controlling their fertility. They and their partners are encouraged to take risks with their health, if not their lives, while researchers scout for funds to do the definitive study.

FHI had an income of $674 million last year, most of it from the US government. Couldn’t it give Charles Morrison the money to do his research today?

Reprinted with permission from Mercatornet.com.


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