New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, contrary to popular daydreams, does not have such a great gig. As far as I can tell, her duties are to act as lightning rod for vitriol from cranky authors—Jonathan Franzen infamously called her the “stupidest person in New York City”—and read every new Philip Roth book to the bitter end. Often she is obligated to use the word “limn.” Likewise, reviewing The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s 500-page career move into the world of adult-targeted fiction, is a thankless task. So Ms. Kakutani elected to talk about Harry Potter the whole time.
With two paragraphs of perfunctory plot summation crammed in at the tail end, and just one icky example of Rowling’s prose, the column could mark any writer’s cold reception. Except that we apparently need it repeated to us, a few dozen times, that there’s no magic here, it’s “Muggle-land,” the climax is not a battle between good and evil wizards, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist, and that really, no joking, kids won’t like it. There are seventeen separate mentions of Harry Potter. Here’s one telling passage:
In some respects “The Casual Vacancy” is grappling with many of the same themes as the Harry Potter books: the losses and burdens of responsibility that come with adulthood, and the stubborn fact of mortality. One of the things that made Harry’s story so affecting was Ms. Rowling’s ability to construct a parallel world enlivened by the supernatural, and yet instantly recognizable to us as a place where death and the precariousness of daily life cannot be avoided, a place where identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate.
Yes, those wonderful themes of aging, death, identity, choice, and fate—monumental elements of narrative that were never available to us before Harry Potter showed up in a basket on our doorstep. I get that we want to weigh any art against the value of the work that preceded it, but if this book is such a departure, do I really need an exegesis of the old stuff? Which, by the way, had its fair share of clichés and tedium and clunkiness, though I’d never point that out for fear of being beaten to death with brooms.
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