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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State Rep who compared Planned Parenthood with ISIS moves to bar dismemberment abortions

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By Ben Johnson
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State Representative Isaac Latterell, R-Sioux Falls

PIERRE, SD, February 23, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The state representative who said that Planned Parenthood beheads human beings just like ISIS is calling for the state Senate to ban all forms of dismemberment abortion.

“Planned Parenthood is worse than ISIS,” said State Representative Isaac Latterell, R-Sioux Falls said when introducing H.B. 1230, the Preborn Infant Beheading Ban of 2015. The bill would make it a felony for an abortionist to behead an unborn child as part of an abortion procedure within the state limits.

“There are certain revolting methods of execution, such as beheading, that no state would ever permit, even against murderers who use this method on their victims,” Rep. Latterell said.

The House Health and Human Services Committee passed the bill last week by a 11-2 vote.

But not everyone was happy with the bill and the publicity it drew. (The same committee had killed a dismemberment and decapitation abortion ban last year.)

State Rep. Burt Tulson, R-Lake Norden, amended the beheading law to simply read, “The State of South Dakota recognizes the sanctity of human life.”

The full House passed the amended form of his bill by 65-3 on Thursday, February 19.

Rep. Latterell is now asking the state Senate to revise the bill again – to go beyond beheading and bar all forms of dismemberment of the unborn.

“I knew beheading was an abhorrent technique reserved for the likes of ISIS terrorists, but I did not fully appreciate how much pain the fetal dismemberment that takes place during dilation and evacuation (D&E) abortions causes the baby,” Latterell told LifeSiteNews. “I am confident when the Senate committee is finished with its hearing, Planned Parenthood's lies will be exposed. I look forward to banning dismemberment abortion once and for all.”

“Dismemberment abortion kills a baby by tearing her apart limb from limb,” said Daniel Woodard, a Columbus School of Law student who testified for the bill.

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Introducing such a bill would put South Dakota in the mainstream of the national pro-life movement. The National Right to Life Committee has made banning dismemberment abortions a national focus. The same day that the South Dakota House passed Latterell's bill, the Kansas state Senate passed the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.

Other states, including Oklahoma and Missouri, have introduced legislation to end the most common form of second-trimester abortion, as well.

The amended H.B. 1230 had its first reading in the state Senate on Friday.

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Detaching ‘pastoral practice’ from Catholic doctrine is a ‘dangerous schizophrenic pathology’: Vatican cardinal

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By Hilary White

ROME, February 23, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Another highly placed Vatican Cardinal has corrected the “progressivist” proposal to offer Holy Communion to Catholics who have been divorced and remarried or who are in other “irregular” sexual unions. The highly respected Cardinal Robert Sarah, recently appointed to the office overseeing the Church’s liturgical practices, says that attempting to detach Catholic teaching from “pastoral practice” is a form of “heresy.”

“The idea that would consist in placing the Magisterium in a nice box by detaching it from pastoral practice – which could evolve according to the circumstances, fads, and passions – is a form of heresy, a dangerous schizophrenic pathology,” Cardinal Sarah said.

“The African Church will strongly oppose any rebellion against the teaching of Jesus and the Magisterium,” he added.

The Guinean cardinal is the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sacraments, but until recently was serving as the head of Cor Unum, the office overseeing the Church’s charitable activities. In his former job, given by Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Sarah was spearheading efforts at reforming the umbrella organization, Caritas Internationalis, as it brought its policies into line with Catholic moral teaching, particularly on contraception and abortion.

The cardinal made the remarks in a book of interviews to be published this week by the French language press, Fayard. Titled “Dieu ou rien” (God or Nothing), the book is described as “frank personal thoughts” on the cardinal’s life, including on “the ideological neo-colonialism in Africa exercised by the decadent West.”

On the various crises of the African continent, he said, “I want to strongly condemn a desire to impose false values ​​using political and financial arguments.” 

He said that in some African countries, “ministries dedicated to gender theory” have been created in order to legitimize the ideology. “These policies are all the more hideous inasmuch as the majority of the African population is defenseless, thanks to the fanatical Western ideologues,” Cardinal Sarah said. 

In the book the cardinal also addresses euthanasia, calling it “the most acute marker of a society without God,” and “subhuman.” But he adds that he has seen an “awakening of consciences,” particularly among younger people in North America who want to overcome “the culture of death.” 

“God was not asleep, he is really with those who defend life!”

Since the “suggestion” on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, made at last year’s consistory, and pushed hard at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in October, by the German Walter Cardinal Kasper and his followers, the Catholic Church is increasingly being shown to be deeply divided at the highest levels and on some of the Church’s most fundamental and definitive issues. While it was frequently commented that the African bishops were on the whole strongly opposed to the Kasper Proposal, the West’s view of the “African Church” as a conservative monolith has been refuted. At least one African bishop has indicated that he outright supports Kasper’s proposal, repeating much of the rhetoric of the Kasper supporters in and out of the Vatican.

Gabriel Palmer Buckle, the archbishop of Accra in Ghana, and one of the bishops chosen to attend the next Synod in October, is quoted by long-time American Vaticanist John Allen saying that he is ready “to vote yes” on allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion.

John Allen wrote that the Ghanian archbishop “supports allowing local bishops to make those decisions on a case-by-case basis, and also believes that’s the result Pope Francis wants from the October summit.”

“When a person comes to me, I think I should be able to sit with him or her, or with the family, to find out what the situation is and to give solutions to individual cases without making a sweeping statement,” Palmer-Buckle said.

“It’s not a matter of issuing a new law,” he said. “As for the doctrine [on marriage], I don’t think the Church will change. It’s a question of how we help individuals.”

He added also that the “case-by-case” approach is favored by Pope Francis. “The truth of the matter is that the Holy Father is pushing towards that, when he talks about collegiality,” he said.

The archbishop echoed the phrases and jargon – such as the invocation of “gradualism” and “accompaniment” – used by both the Vatican and Kasper’s supporters during and immediately following the 2014 Synod.

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“The Holy Father has made it clear that the Church’s doctrine [that marriage is always indissoluble] remains the perfection point, the point of arrival, but we are all wounded,” Palmer-Buckle said. “That’s why Christ came, for the sick, the wounded, the needy.”

“If we look at our own pastoral challenges, there must be room to listen and to see how we can pastorally accompany whoever wants to belong more and more to Christ.”

He also reiterated Kasper’s own statement that the proposal is not intended to change Church teaching: “It’s not a matter of issuing a new law…As for the doctrine [on marriage], I don’t think the Church will change. It’s a question of how we help individuals.”

Others have strongly refuted this thesis, including high-level cardinals, who have said that a change in the practice would simply make the doctrine irrelevant to most Catholics.

With the next session of the Synod still eight months in the future, the sides in the argument are rapidly forming. A few days ago, US Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin, joined the growing chorus of opposition, saying, “Only what is true can ultimately be pastoral and we cannot carry out something else and call it pastoral, if it doesn’t embody the truth.”

“Certain doctrines are embodied in certain practices and even if you don’t change the doctrine in writing, in a written document, if you change the practice you have changed what the previous practice embodied.”

In January, another Vatican curial official, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, gave a lecture in Germany strongly refuting the underlying theory of the Kasper Proposal. With Cardinal Sarah, Piacenza explained that it is incoherent to suggest that the Church’s “pastoral practice” could possibly be placed in opposition to her doctrine.

Speaking to a group of priests and seminarians, Cardinal Piacenza said, “When in Christianity mercy and truth are presented as antagonistic, or at least as contradictory, it is always the result of a partial perception.”

“It is hardly conceivable that there could be such a strong emphasis on mercy to the detriment of truth. Or, its opposite, a strong emphasis on truth to the detriment of mercy.”

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What Uncle Sam giveth, he can taketh away: Our rights are from God, not government

Eric Metaxas
By Eric Metaxas

February 23, 2015 (BreakPoint.org) -- During a recent appearance on CNN, Roy Moore, the chief judge of Alabama’s Supreme Court, debated the issue of same-sex marriage with CNN’s Chris Cuomo, the son of the late New York governor Mario Cuomo and the brother of New York’s current governor, Andrew Cuomo.

During the discussion, Moore said that “Our rights, contained in the Bill of Rights, do not come from the Constitution. They come from God. That’s clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence.” Cuomo then responded “Our rights do not come from God, your honor, and you know that. They come from man.”

Cuomo added that the idea of God-given rights is “your faith [and] my faith, but that’s not our country. Our laws come from collective agreement and compromise.”

I can’t help but wonder which country Cuomo is referring to. After all, the Declaration of Independence, by way of justifying the enormous steps the Founding Fathers were about to take, states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” And “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men . . .”

These words, which previous generations of American school children were made to memorize, set forth an order that is 180 degrees from that suggested by Cuomo: first comes the Creator, who then endows his creatures with “certain unalienable rights,” and then the creatures form governments to “secure those rights.”

In essence, Cuomo is resorting to a kind of legal positivism, that is, the idea that “law is a matter of what has been posited,” something “ordered, decided, practiced, [or] tolerated,” and is not based on any deeper truth.

But that approach has serious flaws—as our own history bears out. In the run-up to the Civil War, for example, defenders of slavery appealed to the text of the Constitution, which permitted slavery without mentioning it by name. Opponents of slavery, or at least those against its spread into the territories, such as Lincoln, appealed to the Declaration of Independence and its ideas about God-given rights.

Sticking to man-given rights and appealing to “collective agreement and compromise” as Cuomo insists upon doing, would not have ended slavery.

However, if our nation’s leaders agree with Cuomo that the rights we possess are those the government has deined to give us, that would go a long way to explaining the erosion of religious liberty we are witnessing in the U. S. After all, the same government that can create a right to abortion and same-sex marriage can also take away the rights of freedom of religion and freedom of association. This may yield the results folks like Cuomo want, but it undermines the very foundation of human rights that we all claim to hold dear.

And that is really what’s at stake. Years ago on this program, Chuck Colson said that human rights are “based on our most fundamental beliefs about humans being created in the image of God.” Our “rights are not conferred by government, and so they cannot be denied by government.” It was this belief that led Chuck to draft the Manhattan Declaration in defense of human life, marriage, and religious freedom.

More than half a million Americans have signed the Manhattan Declaration. So if you have not, or if you haven’t even read this vitally important defense of our rights and freedom, please come to BreakPoint.org, click on this commentary, and I’ll link you to it.

Chris Cuomo was right about one thing: God-given rights are what our faith teaches. If that’s no longer true about “our country,” Heaven help us all.

Reprinted with permission from Break Point. 

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