Last year, I did a number of posts that revolved around seeing: being seen (human and divine editions), and a couple about invisibility. All of these have the theme of being seen and being loved = a very good thing. I feel like I’ve experienced what it’s like to be seen without being loved, thanks to a novel I recently read: J.K. Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy (ACV).
I should note here that I am crazy in love with her Harry Potter series. I’ve read each book multiple times, and even took a class called “Harry Potter for Writers.” They’re not perfect books, but I love them.
I did not love her adult outing. It was masterfully written and observed; that I cannot deny. But it was written in a style that I have a hard time connecting with: omniscient, or if not omniscient, then distant third with a crazy amount of headhopping (using multiple POV characters in the midst of almost every scene). But the thing that really got me, was that the characters are seen with brutal precision and completeness, but little to no affection.
Which is odd, given that there is so much palpable affection for her characters in her writing for young people, even the villains.
In ACV, I could understand the characters and their motivations and their histories and their relationships, but I didn’t enjoy them. And I’m shallow enough to want to enjoy spending that much time in people’s heads. Let it also be said that I don’t really want to know what teenage boys think about sex and how they talk with each other about sex: in this case, I will be happy with general knowledge, not specific.
Many characters had wonderful arcs. All my favorites were in a place of better understanding about themselves and their relationships at the end, and I appreciated that. The main antagonists got a certain level of comeuppance, which was somewhat satisfying — but not entirely, because their circumstances altered, but their assumptions and morals did not. They did not achieve any self-understanding; if anything, they were more entrenched in their views than before. That’s pretty standard for villains, though, I guess.
Back to being seen but not loved
There is some horrible bullying between teenage characters in ACV, and and it’s heartbreaking how the victim buys into everything the bully says about her. From her point of view, the bully is the one who sees her clearly. It’s brutal clarity, but she looks at herself and sees the truth of what he says about her, and compounds it with her own hateful self-talk (fuel also added by her mother). If there weren’t a grain of truth to what the bully said (according to her), it wouldn’t carry as much weight.
Who does JKR have problems with?
I had a brief discussion with someone on Facebook about whether this novel reveals that JKR has problems with fat people. The other person thought so, but I didn’t.
The character whose obesity is most discussed has serious moral failings, to be sure. And there is a scene wherein another character delivers a blistering speech that likens the cost to the taxpayer for the treatment of his obesity to the cost to the taxpayer for the treatment of drug addiction — treatment he spent the novel decrying while he worked to shut down an addiction treatment facility in his village. His failure here is not his size, per se, but his hypocrisy; his size is the occasion to reveal it.
If I take the evidence of her story, the problem I think she has is with attractive people. There are two people who are widely considered to be beautiful in the novel and they are stock characters with little of their interior life shared. We are briefly permitted into the mind of the sexy teenage girl, but her feelings and reactions are stereotypical and understandable for someone in her position: from the big city, forced to move to a small town by her mother who was following a boyfriend the daughter saw with far more clarity than the mother, disdainful of the lameness of the people who think they’re cool in this backwater, knows how her looks affect people, winds up champion of the underdog and pro diversity. She does one mildly stupid thing while blindly drunk, but repairs the damage.
The movie-star-gorgeous Sikh cardiologist barely gets more than 10 lines, all of which are kind or funny and show his ease with and care for the people around him. We never get a glimpse inside him, but other characters frequently mention his looks.
So my question is, why are the beautiful people noble yet essentially uninteresting, outside of the pleasure of looking at them? Why are they not given real problems? Why are they allowed to skate through the story as foils for all the other, far more interesting, characters?
Give the beautiful people real and interesting problems, too! Let them be seen, and not just looked at.
(You see how I tied that in to the theme at the end, there?)