My Specific Problems With The Casual Vacancy

16 03 2013

My previous post on The Casual Vacancy discussed my general problems and concerns with the book. I tried to (hopefully) avoid spoiling the story itself. This piece, however, explores specific problems and issues I have with the story. This post contains spoilers. I discuss information that will give away important plot points, so continue at your own risk.

What Happened To The Election?

The bulk of the story focuses around filling the parish council seat left vacant by the death of Barry Fairbrother. There are related side-stories, such as the living and social conditions for one set of main characters (the Weedons), but for most of the book, the focus is (sort of) about how the seat will be filled, and then who will try to fill it in an upcoming by-election. This situation is known as a “casual vacancy”, and gives the novel its name.

The problem is that, as we approach the latter stages of the book, the by-election becomes an afterthought. It goes from being the primary plot point to being some non-event on the side. Our focus is suddenly shifted to the problems and perils of Sukhvinder Jawanda, who starts out as a barely-mentioned side character (daughter of Parminder Jawanda, one of the current councillors and an ally of Barry Fairbrother in the main point of contention at the time, the situation surrounding The Fields and the Bellchapel addiction clinic). In the last 20% or so of the story, we suddenly get a tragic figure, a heroine of sorts, to perhaps root for.

Up until this major swing, the election consumes the focus of the story. It is important to some of the characters, it is a distraction or annoyance to others. The whole “Ghost of Barry Fairbrother” events have a significant place, and have a meaningful impact on some of the characters. But, without warning, the election becomes almost irrelevant.

Inconsistent Behaviours

I understand that people aren’t always perfectly consistent in how they behave, and most of the characters in the story stay true to who they are. But two characters don’t seem to stay true to form. A minor bit, and one that seems to ultimately be irrelevant to the core story, is Gavin’s infatuation with Barry’s widow, Mary. Here is a guy who has a real problem with commitment, and suddenly he’s prepared to make a commitment. This is a guy who hasn’t got the guts to come out and speak his mind with Kay, but will happily and suddenly open up to someone else. It just doesn’t make sense. It also doesn’t do anything to advance the story in any meaningful way.

The second one is the behaviour of Parminder Jawanda. This is a MD who is extremely conscientious in the care of her patients. She is prepared to endure their ire and withhold prescriptions for certain medications because she knows they are inappropriate or incorrect for the condition. That takes a strong personality willing to defy convention to do the right thing. But, when confronted with a dying man, she hides behind the “I’m under suspension” argument to withhold treatment. This is not the action of a doctor dedicated to patient care first. And nowhere in the book was it clear she was under formal suspension. She was told by her colleague to take some time off while the investigation was conducted. That isn’t a real suspension.

Lost or Pointless Threads

Even with the big problem of the novel not having any kind of real conclusion (not even an ambiguous one where we are left to imagine what happens next), within the story are all kinds of threads and plot points that make the book more of an ill-considered soap opera than a cohesive story. Worse, the few that have “conclusions” of sorts are woefully predictable, because they are cliche.

First, what was the point of Kay, Gaia and the whole bit with Gavin? It didn’t do anything to advance the story. Kay’s “heroic” effort to get information to Parminder about why Bellchapel needs to stay open never figures into the story. Parminder could have arrived with the stats, having done it herself, and had the same tragic outcome at the council meeting. The whole will they/won’t they between Gavin and Kay doesn’t advance the story, and it doesn’t give us insight into the other characters in any useful way.

We don’t need Kay to tell us how bad The Fields are. We could have seen that through the eyes of Krystal and Fats. We would have got that things are bad there, without introducing two major characters (Kay and her daughter Gaia) and complicating the whole story. It would have been enough for us, the reader, to understand just how rundown and miserable the lives of the people that live there are, and would have seen just how important the clinic was. The whole bit with Kay and the review and such wasn’t needed to get the point across.

We also didn’t need Kay and Gaia to illustrate just how insular Pagford has been, and is trying to remain. We could already see that in how they reacted to Parminder and her family. Having outsiders with a different culture, and with a different skin colour, living in one of the village’s historic homes, and occupying a place of power and authority was enough. Sure, it wouldn’t have given Andrew someone to obsess over, but I’m not sure that would have changed the story in any significant way. Andrew had enough motivation for initiating the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother, with Simon’s abusive behaviour, without including Gaia in the picture.

Then we have the other truncated plot points: the attempt by Shirley to knock off Howard with the epipen (who conveniently has another heart attack we could all see coming); the whole bit with Samantha lusting over a boy band and wanting to go to the concert (and kissing Andrew at the birthday party instead); the whole Krystal/Stuart plot that seemed to be an excuse to describe teen-age sex and (again) not really advance the story. Krystal could have any number of reasons to end up at the park, losing track of Robbie resulting in the tragic events that followed. In fact, we didn’t even need that entire plot. We get it: the Fields are a nasty place, and some that live there are irresponsible.

Too Many Extraneous Bits

The story doesn’t have a hero or an anti-hero. There are so many characters and so many side-plots that distract rather than enhance, that the main plot seems to get lost. I get that this isn’t meant to be a plot-driven story. It appears to be an attempt to be a character-driven story. But that only works when you have a concise and meaningful set of characters that we know a lot about. The characters needs to have depth and breadth. These characters aren’t much more than caricatures. They are shallow or hollow approximations of people. I can’t like or hate any one of them, simply because they are so thinly developed.

This story could have focused on 4 main characters: Parminder, Howard, Miles and Colin, with the abusive relationship between Simon and Andrew there initially to kick off the Ghost of Barry Fairbrother. They could have been supported by strong secondary characters to flesh out their lives, and provide additional obstacles in addition to those created by the clashing of the main characters. We could still have had Stuart/Fats as the antagonistic adopted son, and Sukhvinder as the neglected daughter with a learning disability to act as foils. But they never really had to be elevated to main character status to play their roles in the story.

We didn’t need the entire Kay/Gaia/Gavin plot at all. The Stuart/Krystal side-plot could have been just deep enough to give us insight into the Fields without beating us about the head with it. The whole bit of the troubles with Sukhvinder could have remained on the side to illustrate Parminder’s blind spot, without suddenly shifting into the centre of the story. Mary could have moved with her family elsewhere after Barry’s funeral and not changed the essential nature of the story.

Focus, Focus, Focus

The story needed to focus on the title, specifically the situation created by the casual vacancy. It could have built up more tension around the election, and the events leading up to it. Then the election could have gone two ways. One would have been the victory for Miles, to show just how little things really do change in society (making it a bit of a story about futility). The alternative would have been for Colin to win, disrupting plans to cut the Fields loose and shut down the clinic, showing that, occasionally, large shifts do happen, and things do change in disruptive ways (and it would have given Howard his comeuppance without having to put him the ICU). It would have made for a tighter and more cohesive story, and one that we could focus on without trying to remember who was who doing what to whom in the cast of the thousands.

An alternative would have been to place the election near the middle of the story, and then focus on the politics to overcome the outcome. It would have been the pro-Fields faction fighting against long odds to get their way (had Miles won), or the pro-status-quo fighting for their goal (had Colin won). Again, a tighter story with more focus.

It is probably pretty obvious from this, and my previous piece, what the main issue with the novel is: a lack of focus. The book is disjointed, and hops around from plot-to-plot and from character-to-character so much that it is challenging to try to keep up. I’m not looking for that kind of a challenge when I’m reading. I expect my assumptions to be challenged. I like stories that give us twists in the plot that are unexpected. I fully expect the main characters to face obstacles and challenges as they try to achieve their goal, and I don’t have a problem if the main character fails. As long as the failure is plausible, and it was a good story, I can be satisfied.

But I wasn’t satisfied with The Casual Vacancy. It is disjointed. It lacks focus. It doesn’t even end so much as it just seems to give up. Ultimately, it was a disappointing novel, and not one I feel the need to read again and again.

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