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Thinking pop culture

The bliss of bearing bad news

Casual Vacancy - by JK Rowling.

Daily, my mum’s cousin devours Il Globo. Not for the articles - I’m not entirely sure she can read Italian - but for the death notices. And regularly, excitedly, she’ll call Mum with the “untimely” deaths of people who got off the ship with my grandmother. In the early 1950s.

I was thinking about these death knells - about Mum’s cousin’s barely veiled excitement - while reading JK Rowling’s new door-stopper Casual Vacancy.

Parish politician Barry Fairbrother’s fatal aneurysm starts the novel. And it’s the palpable delirium of characters spreading the news - broken telephone-style - that drew me in to this small town, local politics romp.

I’ve written about schadenfreude in the space before and I suspect it’s a worthwhile consideration: I’d argue that for some there’s a perception - however small - of an inoculating effect of someone else getting sick, of someone else dropping dead.

More so however, I think it’s a timely reflection of the public appetite for drama. About how drawn we are to negative news stories and how few options exist for us to insert ourselves into the action.

About 50% of the time that I go into the women’s toilets at work for example, I expect to discover a dead body.

This isn’t because I actively want a homicide, rather, because part of me quite fancies the idea of a workday turning into an episode of Law and Order.

Life is often pedestrian so drama and excitement is routinely found in vicarious access to it: commonly film, books, television. Equally, it’s drawn from talking about it. About being the one with the bad news; about getting to frame the revelation, to add the inflections. To be there when an audience hears, for the first time, news of something horrible.

It’s why we remember where we were when we first heard about September 11, about who we first spoke to about it. Less enduring are memories of the good news stories.

The narration of Casual Vacancy is deliciously biting. Pagford, apparently, is only populated by the truly wretched. Cruel people, ugly people, rapists, addicts, empire-builders, thugs. And few are treated with any sympathy. Which quickly sucked me in.

I’ve not read any of the wizard books, but it’s a lot like Stephen King’s The Dome, which I loved.

The Dome - by Stephen King.

Less excitingly, it’s much less subtle than the King tome, and at times it feels as though Rowling got her mitts on an undergrad sociology book and was paid per social ill incorporated. Bullying, check. Drug abuse, check. Domestic violence, check. Illiteracy, incest, obesity, check, check, check.

But it’s good. And it’s worth putting in the effort of working out who’s who, where the allegiances and skeletons lie and just who will seize Barry’s vacant seat.

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