The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling: Book review

The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling, coverIt’s been said before, but it’s worth saying again to play it safe: The Casual Vacancy is not a book for children. Do not gift this book to a young Harry Potter fan. Not even a charmingly precocious seems-wise-beyond-her-years one. There’s a C-bomb about five pages in.¬†When J.K. Rowling said she intended to write a book for adults, she was not messing around.

Rowling also intended to write a book that isn’t fantasy, and Vacancy‘s story is as muggle as they come: a council election. The residents of Pagford, a stock-standard quaint English town, must elect a new member to their parish council when Barry Fairbrother dies suddenly. Barry had been an advocate for a nearby council estate called The Fields – “council estate” being the polite name for “drug-addled rathole” – and his successor will determine the estate’s future.

The good guys and the bad guys are easy to identify, but they’re not heroes and villains. They’re marked not by their virtues or their flaws but I guess by their regard for humanity: for all their failings, the good guys understand that other people are all people, that everyone has an internal voice and hopes and roots; the bad guys don’t look beyond shallow stereotypes, beyond throwing people in or out of particular cliques, beyond their own problems.

Not everyone rates her prose, but Rowling is brilliant at creating these full, organic worlds. It’s an underrated talent of hers – it’s why the worlds created by her Potter imitators often feel so hollow – and her imagination extends not just to these huge wild ideas but to the small little ones too. The world Rowling crafts in Vacancy is a real one, brimming with detail and too-familiar human pettiness.

It’s also an unexpectedly bleak world. If Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows tricked you into thinking that Rowling can’t resist a sappy ending, think again. It becomes clear pretty early on in Vacancy that not everything will be resolved with a nice bow – it’s just not that kind of book – but it’s a shock how brutal (and, to be honest, melodramatic) the final chapters are. Rowling, though a clear advocate for social equality and fairness, is ultimately a realistic, or a cynic: the cruel, hard-hearted currents of human nature are too powerful to be dammed. Society’s worst problems can’t be fixed. It fits that Barry Fairbrother, maybe the only effortlessly moral and good man in Pagford, dies in the first couple of pages. It’s not Voldemort-style evil that’s undoing the world. It’s just indifference to other people.


Argo: Movie review


(Fact: The weekend after watching Argo I watched Fargo! I would’ve kept going but all the other –argo movies looked kind of bad.)

Argo‘s trailer makes it look kind of like an Ocean’s 11-ish caper: Zany CIA agents pretend to be zany Hollywood filmmakers to sneak into Iran and free some zany hostages! Wacky hijinks ensue!

Actually it’s a solid political story, based on the Iranian hostage crisis of the late 1970s and early ’80s. You can Wikipedia the details, but basically: When the American embassy in Tehran was overrun with Iranian protesters, a small group of Americans secretly escaped and, unknown to Iranian authorities, housed themselves in the Canadian embassy. Seeking to rescue them, the CIA sent in “exfiltration” specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) to pose as the producer of a tacky Hollywood’s sci-fi film, part of a (zany!) scheme to sneak the “Houseguests” out.

I only had hazy memories of the hostage crisis, gleaned from high-school history classes. But even if you already know how the story ends, watching Mendez and the Houseguests barely escape from Iran (history! Not a spoiler!), with revolutionaries on their heels, is tense business. And while the film’s focus is squarely on the Americans – the Iranians are mostly straight-up bad guys – it does a pretty decent job of explaining how Iran got so screwed up/over.

Argo‘s biggest problem: flat characters. I’ll forgive that in Affleck’s case, because he’s playing a serious CIA-type. But if you have a flat leading man you need a vibrant supporting cast, and Victor Garber (as a Canadian ambassador), Tate Donovan (one of the Houseguests), Bryan Cranston (some CIA guy) and the rest… they’re just kind of there. The only Houseguest with anything resembling personality is the one played by Clea DuVall, who’s actually allowed some sparse characterisation. John Goodman and Alan Arkin, playing flamboyant Hollywood producers, lift the story whenever they appear.

Argo posterAffleck shrugged off that “doltish pretty boy tabloid fodder” thing a while back (yes, I know he got his break co-writing, starring in and winning as Oscar for Good Will Hunting, but for a long time – mostly during what I’ll politely term his “Lopez Years” – there were rumours about Matt Damon having done most of the heavy lifting on that one), and he does a solid job directing Argo. The opening scene depicting the invasion of the U.S. embassy is terrifically matter-of-fact, the plot clips along nicely, and the aforementioned escape scenes are great.

But what happens after those escape scene – boy, schmaltzy. Once the Houseguests are safely rescued, there’s soaring music (clashing terribly against the rest of the brown ’70s dagginess) and nicely-tied-up happy endings for all – even the Iranian housekeeper at the Canadian embassy who never let slip about the Americans hiding there. She manages to slip into Iraq. Where they all lived happily ever after!

So Argo really should have ended about 10 or 15 minutes before it actually does. Despite that: Argo see it. Then Argo fuck yourself.