Friday, April 13, 2012

A Casual Vacancy of Writing

Not to be too on-the-nose about it, the Harry Potter novels contain a certain amount of magic. There’s a simple, and oftentimes elegant, delight to traveling to Hogwarts with Harry, climbing up the steps to the dormitory with Ron, and practicing spells with Hermione. And these are the more mundane routines of everyday life in the remote Scottish school, before the likes of Quidditch and Horcruxes are thrown into the mix.

But there is, unfortunately, a dark(er) side to Harry. Jo Rowling takes Chekov's gun to an absurdly literal degree, giving her books a decidedly paint-by-numbers feel. Unlike, say, George R.R. Martin, another mainstay in modern fantasy fandom, no detail can be added for the pure sake of wanton beauty or innocuous worldbuilding – that exploding toilet on page five will somehow have to be tied into the plodding, overbearing narrative, and you better believe it will crop back up in some thoroughly convoluted way on page 607.

(Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth entry in the series, is the perfect example of this dualistic nature of Rowling’s narrative sensibilities. On the one hand, it contains perhaps a perfect collection of moments – of character beats and everyday life and action sequences – but, on the other, it’s plagued with the single-most overwrought plot seen outside of Kojima Hideo’s Metal Gear Solid series. Just try and guess who the main antagonist of the story is before the Scooby Doo climax…)

Which brings us to today’s announcement of the novelist’s first adult undertaking. A Casual Vacancy sounds suspiciously like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand meets Clue (both board game and film), though we'll have to wait until September 27th to find out for certain (and to see whether the already-melodramatic marketing is as gaudy as it indeed seems). What will also have to wait to be seen is just how much conceptual wiggle room J.K. has left herself, and just how much more obvious her heavyhanded plotting will become as a result – if, indeed, her "for-adults" story sensibilities remain unchanged from the realm of children's lit.

Let's be honest here: there is little doubt that Vacancy will indeed contain its own particular brand of magic, and even smaller doubt that it will be worth taking the 480-page ride, no matter how bumpy it may be in spots. This is the strongest connection Rowling's second (complete) story will more than likely have to her first, but it – along with her legacy as an author – can easily be thwarted if she does, indeed, turn out to be a one-trick pony.

Whatever the result, let's just hope that, at the very least, she's grown as a writer in at least one small way: learning how to properly utilize a comma.

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