My leftie objections to the Olympics manifested this week in the mildest, least lifestyle-disrupting manner I could conjure: reading about a fictitious attack on them.
From the productive – if not necessarily prestigious – James Patterson Factory comes his collaboration with Mark Sullivan: Private Games. The London Games are under threat by “Cronus”, a shady character with a God-complex, who is killing off officials and athletes in a variety of elaborate, if vaguely preposterous, methods.
While the full-throttle assault on the games promised by the blurb didn’t quite pan out, the idea of a fictitious attack on the London Games – written for release just prior to the real Games – fascinated me.
Surely there’s something a little macabre about me – about the thousands of others drawn to the book – reading about something horrible happening to a major event while that event is actually happening?
I’m very interested in the concept of schadenfreude, a German word describing the pleasure reaped from the pain of others. Initially it occurred to me that being drawn to this book, this genre, encapsulates this.
In a world where all major international cities are fearful of terrorist attacks, in an environment where millions are spent attempting to safeguard major event participants, the pleasure in reading about an attack on something like the London Games seems indicative of our darker preoccupations. Not about us actively wanting something bad to happen necessarily, but sourcing at least a modicum of pleasure when it does.
While the simplest understanding of schadenfreude is laughing at someone slipping on a banana peel, there are other features that make it much more interesting. Humans, for example, often feel pleasure at hearing about the misfortune of others. This isn’t normally about sadism, rather, about seizing an opportunity to perceive our own lives – however dismal – as a little better than those around us. Another aspect, particularly as related to disease or misfortune, is the concept of the dodged bullet.
Hearing about the cancer of a friend or a terrorist attack on a city that isn’t our own, and there is pleasure reaped from the simple fact that it’s not us; that, in a world of gruesome statistics, we’re not one of them. That we feel somehow inoculated.
One last speculation of the appeal is our insatiable appetite for drama. If we think of the biggest news stories of our lifetime and they’re the bad news ones. Wars and bombings and plane crashes and mass shootings sell papers. They sell papers as well as sell novels and film tickets and computer games because we love bad stuff. We love fiery, high-stakes footage. We love infinite angles and drip-feed revelations and stirring personal testimonies. We love this stuff because the media permits us participation at a safe, arms length distance. Our hands remain bloodless, our shoes spotlessly clean.
No, of course I didn’t want anything to happen to the real games. But what makes the premise, if sadly not the writing, of the Patterson/Sullivan collaboration intriguing is the reality that the bigger the major event, the bigger the attack and, inevitably, the bigger the media spectacle will be.