Can You Ever Really Know an Author?

With J. K. Rowling’s latest contribution to crime fiction – The Silkworm – headlining the New York Times Book Review, Adam Kirsch’s essay in “Bookends” in the same section – When We Read Fiction, How Relevant is the Author’s Biography?  questions whether knowing the author’s life (and previous work) affects our reception of new work – is it

 “a mere distraction from what really matters, the work?”

Although he does not cite Rowling, focusing instead on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, the one with a life clearly available for scrutiny, the other not so much, my expectations of a new book by J.K. Rowling are probably higher because of Harry Potter.  And, like Rick Nelson, who faced a jeering audience when he failed to perform their old favorite songs, Rowling’s foray into adult crime has left me wanting to return to wizards and magic. To be fair, I have only read the first in the detective series, and maybe the second is better.

IMG_0348Shakespeare, on the other hand, will always be a favorite, and I agree with Kirsch:

…the unknowability of Shakespeare  is a key ingredient in his greatness… {he} stays one step ahead of  us, always knowing more about life and human nature than we do…”

Soon I will be getting reacquainted with the Bard at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City through Twelfth Nigh, Measure for Measure, and Comedy of Errors, and I know my high expectations will be met.  Jane Austen will be there too in an adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.  Maybe we can all have tea together.



The Cuckoo’s Calling

9780316206846_p0_v3_s260x420Would I have read Robert Galbraith’s detective mystery – The Cuckoo’s Calling – if I had not known J.K. Rowling was hiding behind the words? Probably not.  But having loyally followed her from Harry Potter to her less stellar adult book, Casual Vacancy, I curiously wanted to know what this prolific author would do with a mystery.

The storyline follows a familiar formula. The grizzled war hero detective, Comoran Strike, and his trusty secretary/assistant, beautiful and young Robin, are on the case of a murder that the police have closed as a suicide. The victim is a model with a past and a shady boyfriend.  As the duo fend off red herrings, other characters and the setting offer a distinctive British flavor.

Galbraith/Rowling reveals the clues through endless conversations between possible suspects and Strike.  The tough Colombo-like detective (he is missing a leg, not an eye) with a soft-spot for his bright adventure-seeking new secretary, solves the case about halfway through the book, from crucial but mysterious clues that only he can decipher. What was the significance of the drops of water on the stairs and the victim’s missing note, written on a blue slip of paper?  How did the search for a birth father change the victim’s life?

“The dead could only speak through the mouths of those left behind, and through the signs left they scattered behind them.”

The clues drop out fast, and you might want to use Strike’s note-taking method to keep them all straight.  If you enjoy solving a crime as you read, the author happily gives you all the pieces, and dutifully reveals all in an Agatha Christie wrap-up at the end.  The murderer is a surprise but you might figure it out.

In the book’s last lines, Rowling may be sending fans a message with Comoran’s quote from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses.”

I cannot rest from travel:  I will drink
Life to the lees; all times  have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those 
That loved me, and alone; on shore and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name…

Not as clever as Harry Potter’s magical escapades, but The Cuckoo’s Calling had enough to keep me reading to find out whodunit, and wonder if Rowling/Galbraith has created the beginnings of a detective series.  Comoran Strike and Robin make a good team.

A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

After delivering seven magical books about Harry Potter, Rowling had raised high expectations for fans with her new book – A Casual Vacancy.  Harry is a hard act to follow, especially when the magic is missing and only the Muggles remain.  If you can forget who the author is and imagine she is a gritty British version of Jonathan Franzen, the disappointment is easier to digest.

The story centers around the sudden death of Barry Fairbrother, chair of the parish Council (equivalent to a small town mayor), and the rippling effect on the lives of those who knew him in Pagford.  The little town problems of petty jealousies and back-stabbing gossip are matched against drug addiction, child neglect, self-mutilation, prostitution, and rape.  Rowling also adds profane language – just to be sure you know this is not a children’s book.

The slice of humanity represented in the flawed characters includes universal antagonisms between the haves and have-nots, those who long for the good old days and the young who cannot change the world fast enough, the struggle between social responsibility and self-preservation.  Rowling’s strength is in her descriptive back-stories, introducing you to small-minded people you already know; this is a small town and secrets are hard to keep.  The foil is Krystal Weedon, the deprived teenager desperate for a better life – the life that Barry was about to launch her into with an interview with the local newspaper – before he unexpectedly died of an aneurysm. From the other side of the tracks, Krystal’s struggles are overwhelming: a drug addict mother and a life of poverty and filth.  The possibility that she will be saved kept me reading, but she was the doomed tragic heroine.

People can be cruel, and Rowling brings out the worst in them, as she exposes their weaknesses and dares them to be civil, in the wake of the one dead man who seemed to have kept the monsters at bay.  As the story marches slowly past Barry’s funeral, facades fall aside and the race to fill the dead man’s Council seat is on.  The action escalates to a brutal exposé of small town politics with teenagers hacking into the Council’s website, creating chaos and feeding the misery, while seeking revenge for parental injustices.

The story is divided into seven sections; by the fourth section, I could not imagine that life could get worse but I was wrong. With little comic relief, the story heads nonstop into a Shakespearean tragic ending – dead bodies and ruined lives.  The small town goes on being small-minded.

Rowling clearly makes her point that she can write stories for adults, and over 500 pages of A Casual Vacancy raise serious social issues that adults need to address – all in an unsympathetic view of the human condition.  If I had not known about Harry Potter, I may not have missed the hope and possibilities that are deliberately avoided.

J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter

When one of the cable channels aired a biopic of J.K. Rowling, it seemed a good time to revisit the first Harry Potter.  I have the complete set on my bookshelf, and it’s comforting to know that a single mother down on her luck was able to imagine a world of wizards and magic that would make a better place.  Maybe it helps to be angry and tired to tap into words that are consoling.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you…Ray Bradbury

Rowling was talented and imaginative and lucky.  Other books have offered entrance into a magical world – sometimes wizards – but none had the following of Harry Potter. Rick Riordan’s superheroes series comes close in popularity, but Percy doesn’t seem to have the same appeal to adults as Harry.

Rowling cleverly gave the reader installments that teased into an excitement of expectation.  What would happen to Harry in the next book?  And the formula worked well –  a poor orphan who was relegated to an unloving home, only to find himself a prince of the extraordinary.  Doesn’t every little girl and boy – and adult – dream of being discovered and powerful?

Rereading Harry and the Sorcerer’s Stone was just as much fun as reading it the first time – maybe more so since now I know how it will all end.