Saturday, December 1, 2012

Reflections on Teenagers and Their Thirst for Significance in THE CASUAL VACANCY by J. K. Rowling - Part 3


This is my third post with reflections on teenagers and their thirst for signficance in THE CASUAL VACANCY, J. K. Rowling's first novel since her Harry Potter series. This novel for adults is set in the fictional rural English town of Pagford. A "casual vacancy" on the Pagford Parish Council has resulted from the sudden death of council member Barry Fairbrother, due to an aneurysm. The process of filling the vacant council seat reveals the dark underbelly of the seemingly idyllic town of Pagford.

This post continues my reflections on a prominent theme in the novel: teenagers and their thirst for significance during that in-between time when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. This theme shows up in the dis-empowering treatment of teenagers in Pagford, in teens' attention to autonomous thoughts, in their striving for authenticity, in the importance they accord to secret places, in smoking behavior, in sexual behavior, in bullying behavior, in the practice of self-cutting, in the ability to act significantly but anonymously afforded by the Internet, in possessing valuable objects, in sports, in family aspirations, and in suicide.

My previous two posts reflect on dis-empowerment, autonomous thoughts, authenticity, secret places, smoking, sexual behavior, bullying, and cutting. This post will reflect on Internet anonymity.

INTERNET ANONYMITY. Rowling's novel shows how a savvy Internet user can post on the Internet with complete anonymity. In THE CASUAL VACANCY, teenager Andrew Price does exactly this. A substitute teacher has recently told Andrew's computer class about SQL injections, which allow one to hack into a website that doesn't have proper security. At an Internet café, Andrew uses an SQL injection to hack into the Pagford Parish Council website. Since the site is administered by a very amateur computer user who has not set up even minimal security against hacking, Andrew is successful on his first try. A post by the recently deceased council member, Barry Fairbrother, allows Andrew to access the dead man's username and password and to post a comment himself after changing the username to The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother.

Andrew has composed a post about his father, Simon Price, who has decided to run for Barry Fairbrother's now vacant Pagford Parish Council seat. Simon is very abusive to his family, and Andrew has been swallowing bucketsful of anger throughout his life as he, his mother, and his brother have endured the terror of Simon's rages. Andrew also knows that Simon possesses a stolen computer and has earned under-the-table money by using the printers at his place of employment to do illicit printing jobs. Andrew reveals Simon's dishonesy in a comment on the Pagford Parish Council website titled "Simon Price Unfit to Stand for Council" by The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother. Although Andrew's best friend, Stuart "Fats" Wall, is with Andrew and sees what he has done, Fats remains silent and no one ever discovers that Andrew is the person behind that damaging post.

Later, teenager Sukhvinder Jawanda, daughter of Pagford Parish Council member Parminder Jawanda, uses the same method to express anger at her mother. Sukhvinder, too, heard the lecture on SQL injections from the substitute teacher in the computer class, and manages to hack into the Pagford Parish Council website, compose a damaging post about her mother, and attribute it to The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother. Like Andrew Price, Sukhvinder Jawanda remains permanently anonymous. No one ever identifies her as the author of that post.

Next, Fats Wall composes a damaging post about his father, also a contender for the vacant Pagford Parish Council seat, and finally, Andrew Price composes a final post about an extra-marital affair of council member Howard Mollison.

In the end, Fats, due to an unusual set of circumstances, confesses to having authored all four posts by The_Ghost_of_Barry_Fairbrother. Otherwise, one assumes, no author of these posts would ever have been discovered. (Indeed, with Fats taking responsibility for all four posts, the involvement of Andrew Price and of Sukhvinder Jawanda never is discovered.)

The temptation to post anonymously on the Internet can be very strong. In New Orleans, we have the case of Sal Perricone, assistant attorney to U. S. prosecutor Jim Letten, who has been revealed as the composer of Internet comments on federal cases being prosecuted by Letten and Perricone. Perricone posted under the username of Henry L. Mencken1951. As a member of the prosecuting team, Perricone is forbidden to comment on cases being prosecuted, but that didn't prevent him from giving in to the strong temptation to post anonymous comments. Clearly, he wasn't as careful as the teenagers in Rowling's THE CASUAL VACANCY, for Perricone's anonymous comments were traced to him, forcing his resignation.

It now also appears that Jan Mann, another member of Jim Letten's team, has posted similar comments under the username eweman. Tellingly, the comments of eweman stopped just as soon as Sal Perricone was revealed as Henry L. Mencken1951.

I suppose it could be exhilarating to see one's comments in print, hear people discussing them, and continue on as a member of the federal prosecuting team. One would feel very powerful, perhaps even invincible.

I don't know why Sal Perricone and Jan Mann needed to experience this kind of exhilaration, but I can see how it would be intoxicating for teenagers. Teenagers don't have much say-so about their lives. To cause something significant to happen, to know that you caused something significant to happen, to hear people discussing what you have caused and searching for the perpetrator, and just to watch silently what you have set in motion while no one suspects that it was you - this would give teenagers a heady sense of power.

My next post will conclude my reflections on teenagers and their thirst for significance in THE CASUAL VACANCY, focusing on valuable objects, sports, family aspirations, and suicide.

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