The Casual Vacancy
Little, Brown and Company, 2012
503 pp., $35.00
The Casual Vacancy
For example, the upstanding residents of Pagford, like the Pharisee in Jesus' parable (Luke 18:9-14), are thankful that they are not like their neighbors in the Fields:
There was nothing, as far as Howard could see, to stop the [people in the projects] growing fresh vegetables; nothing to stop them disciplining their sinister, hooded, spray-painting offspring; nothing to stop them pulling themselves together as a community and tackling the dirt and the shabbiness; nothing to stop them cleaning themselves up and taking jobs; nothing at all …. The estate's air of slightly threatening degradation was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence.
Pagford, by contrast, shone with a kind of moral radiance in Howard's mind, as though the collective soul of the community was made manifest in its cobbled streets, its hills, its picturesque houses … a micro-civilization that stood firmly against a national decline.
Most of these morally radiant citizens, however, are extremely self-absorbed. They love themselves, but they have no time for their neighbors. We may expect as much of the teenagers, though we sympathize with the school guidance counselor who sometimes wants to shout at the kids, "You must accept the reality of other people …. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God." Sadly, the grown-ups are worse than the kids. Sixteen-year-old Andrew "asked himself whether Simon [his father] even saw other humans as real …. Simon did nothing that required collaboration, and had never evinced the smallest interest in anything that did not benefit him directly."
This pervasive selfishness means that Pagford, though outwardly pretty, is full of sins: adultery, abuse, theft, gluttony, drunkenness, racism, bullying, indifference, neglect, hatred, envy, pride. Jesus could well have castigated them in the words he directed at the scribes and Pharisees, "Woe to you, … hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth" (Matt. 23:27).
Their sins will not go unpunished. Like the Harry Potter books, The Casual Vacancy is apocalyptic. It does not feature colorful cosmic battles like those in The Deathly Hallows and the Book of Revelation (though one character feels "it would have been a relief if St. Michael had stepped down from his glowing window and enacted judgment on them all"). Rather, like the "little apocalypses" of the Gospels, it is about revelation, unveiling, and judgment.
"Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered," Jesus warns, "and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have … whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops" (Luke 12:1-3). Presumably Jesus isn't thinking of the Internet, but some of Pagford's children spend their days staring at computer monitors. Pagford's elders have no idea how much the kids know about them—or how easily they can reveal their secrets to the entire village. If "one's foes will be members of one's own household" (Matt. 10:36), one's judges, too, are close at hand.
The Sikh doctor is one of the few Pagford citizens who knows "what Christians were supposed to believe in. Love thy neighbor as thyself." But who are Pagford's neighbors, and what would it mean to love them? The day of the fateful council meeting arrives. Political battle lines are defended:
"We're having to make some very difficult decisions at District Council level," said Aubrey Fawley [a wealthy financier]. "The government's looking for more than a billion in savings from local government. We cannot continue to provide services the way we have done. That's the reality."
In rhetoric familiar to Americans in this election season, Fawley goes on to berate what he calls a "culture of entitlement" and "people who have literally not worked a day in their lives."
So tempers flare, and decisions are taken, and the book's many disparate stories interweave and move inexorably to a conclusion "so howlingly bleak," said Allison Pearson in the Telegraph, "that it makes Thomas Hardy look like PG Wodehouse."