Pagford is a picturesque, and fictional, town in the quaint English countryside. The citizens however are less than ideal. Many of the people in this wide cast of characters are downright unpleasant, but J.K. Rowling demands that the reader pay attention to their stories. The darker characterizations of the town’s inhabitants in The Casual Vacancy are revealed through Rowling’s use of transgressive imagery. The death of a beloved (though this particular descriptive word depends on the character) community figure acts as a catalyst that causes many secrets to come to light.
While many of the adult characters are shaken by the death of Councillor
Barry Fairbrother, some are delighted; others are teenagers who are affected in other ways. Andrew Price, who is in the throes of late adolescence and cowers under the shadow of an abusive father, has several musings about sex when he reflects on the appearance of Krystal Weedon at school the day after Fairbrother’s death. He admires her boldness in eschewing the school uniform that day. “The string of her thong was clearly visible above her low-slung tracksuit bottoms” (26). He muses on the time that he saw her “bare pink vulva” when she dropped her underpants as kids teased her about her name in primary school.
For many readers, contemplating the sexuality of a sixteen-year-old and the memory of the “Christmas”-like gift of seeing Krystal’s genitals when she was five would be an
uncomfortable musing for adult readers. But Rowling does not shy away from the fact that her teenage cast has carnal desires; she subverts idyllic expectations in the setting with this early foray into Andrew’s thoughts. The concept of late-teenage sexuality as transgressive is also somewhat cultural since eighteen is perceived as the age of consent in the United States. Sixteen or “Legal,” in the United Kingdom, as it is pointed out by another character, the fortyish Samantha Mollison, who kisses Andrew in a drunken state later in the book (445).
Another character’s observations are likely to make a reader recoil. Kay Bawden is a social worker adjusting after relocating from London to Pagford. She is a complete outsider, but not in the way that the reader is. She is given extra work because of a coworker’s illness, and she is given the Weedon’s case. Many readers can already surmise from Andrew’s observations of Krystal’s wild nature that Kay should be in for a surprise. After a casual survey of the garbage and unkempt front lawn of the Weedon house, she notices “a used condom glistening in the grass beside her feet, like the gossamer cocoon of some huge grub” (65). Rowling leaves the readers in a state of slight revulsion with this contradictory visual. There is little follow up to the simile; Kay recalls her early nervous days of being a social worker, but nothing in regards to the presence of the condom. Greater emotion is coaxed out of Kay when she meets drug addict Terri Weedon and her other neglected child, Robbie, a three-and-a-half year old wearing a diaper that has not been changed for some time. When she takes on the task, her heart breaks when she sees the sores on his body.
Besides writing of teenage sexuality, drug abuse, and familial neglect, Rowling continues to play on her readers’ revulsions and sympathies simultaneously. Sukhvinder Jawanda is the miserable, youngest child of two doctors. She is not an academic achiever like her siblings or a beauty like her elder sister. Andrew Price’s friend has taken to tormenting her and the way that Sukhvinder deals with her depression is with self-mutilation. In vivid and unnerving detail the reader is right next to this character one night when she engages in her ritual. “With a slight shiver of fear that was a blessed relief in its narrow, immediate focus, she placed the (razor) blade halfway up her forearm and sliced into her own flesh…The blade drew the pain away from her screaming thoughts and transmuted it into burning nerves and skin: relief and release in every cut” (149).
A lot of readers cannot, or will not, empathize with the action of cutting into one’s own flesh and finding “relief and release.” It is a difficult concept to grasp, but not an isolating one as readers may clutch their own arm in vicarious reaction to the prose on these pages.
Rowling dares to challenge her readers to see the world through everyone’s secrets. These revelations are not pretty but they are a revelatory magnifying glass on the human condition, which is often the goal of more typical transgressive literature. The residents of Pagford are not unabashed sexual sadists and serial killers like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman or anarchistic, underground fight club participants a la Chuck Palahniuk. Yet the many transgressive moments, which are likely to unnerve J.K. Rowling’s audience in part or whole, electrifies the narrative and the characters of The Casual Vacancy, leaving lasting imprints on the reader.
Rowling, J.K. The Casual Vacancy. New York: Little, Brown, 2012. Print.
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