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Pretty Vacant
Understanding the badness of J.K. Rowling's adult novels

By Paula Marantz Cohen

I am a Harry Potter fan. Like many adult enthusiasts, I was introduced to the novels by my children, who began reading them in pre-adolescence and continued into their teens. My appreciation was reinforced by my students. When I led a group of undergraduates to London as part of a course on Charles Dickens, the class visited the Inns of Court that figure in Bleak House but also Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross Station where Harry and his friends embarked for Hogwarts. This makes sense; there is a definite kinship between Dickens’s novels and Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Rowling, like Dickens, is wonderfully inventive with a clearly defined moral sense; her characters’ whimsical, allegorically-inflected names are Dickensian, as is her ability to mesh adventure with the bildungsroman plot. I have maintained, in the face of snobbish opposition, that she is Dickens’s heir — and a genius.

But I was brought up short by the three novels Rowling has written for the adult market: A Casual Vacancy, published in 2012, A Cuckoo’s Calling in 2013, and The Silkworm, in June of this year.

What must strike a reader of these books, especially if one comes to them after the luminous Harry Potter novels, is how unluminous they are — dingy in the literal and the metaphorical sense. The world they depict is an uber-Muggle world, and the writing is full of pedestrian, formulaic phrasing and imagery. A Casual Vacancy takes place in a small parish in England and explores the response to the unexpected death from a brain aneurysm of one of its prominent citizens. Most everyone in the town is small-minded, vulgar, and ugly. There is little compassion for the characters and no sense that the world they inhabit has beauty in it.



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