Archives for posts with tag: Jon Ronson

Psychopath TestJon Ronson is a gonzo-style journalist known for his funny take on the bizarre. In Them Ronson details his experiences with extremists – an Islamic activist, a Ku Klux Klan leader. The Men Who Stare at Goats deals with the New Age unit of the United States Army that attempts to train soldiers to walk through walls and kill goats with their minds. The Psychopath Test is, strangely enough, about psychopaths.

After becoming fascinated with the idea that perhaps psychopaths, not rational thinkers, really do ‘make the world go round’, Jon Ronson’s psychopath investigation kicks off with an encounter with Scientologists. Scientologists don’t believe in psychiatry, there’s even an entire branch of the organisation dedicated to discrediting psychiatrists – Tom Cruise’s tirade against antidepressants has made their stance quite infamous.

The Scientologists lead Ronson to Broadmoor Psychiatric Hospital and a man named Tony. Tony faked mental illness to get out of a prison sentence for grievous bodily harm, and landed himself in Broadmoor instead. Now they won’t let him out. After realising that Tony did indeed fake his way in, his psychiatrists believe he suffers from psychopathy. Tony ends up in a weird Catch-22 scenario – if he acts sane they say the treatment is working and he needs to stay, if Tony says he faked insanity then that kind of manipulative behaviour is a classic indicator of psychopathy, thereby making him insane. And how do you prove sanity anyway? Is Tony actually a psychopath?

The absurdly frightening ambiguity of Tony’s case leads Ronson to the Bob Hare psychopath checklist. The Hare Checklist is a list of traits that are indicative of psychopathy, like ‘glibness/superficial charm’ and ‘cunning/manipulative’. Score highly on the checklist and you’re a psychopath. After attending Hare’s seminar Jon Ronson decides to do some of his own psychopath-spotting using his new found skills.

Ronson interviews suspected psychopaths from various walks of life – war criminals, executives, conspiracy theorists. Each interview is a link in the chain, one clue leading to the next, creating a relatively cohesive structure. Kind of like a deranged treasure hunt.

Are corporate CEOs all psychopaths? The Psychopath Test isn’t the first place I’d heard that idea. So interviewing a ruthless corporate bigwig to test for psychopathy is an obvious choice. But if at least some are, then do they have the capacity to be dangerous? What’s the difference between a psychopathic serial killer and a psychopathic business executive? Ronson doesn’t really find any answers but his interview with ex-Sunbeam executive Al Dunlap is entertaining and makes you wonder…

Ronson takes a look at the conspiracy theorist as psychopath. Deniers of the London tube bombings in 2005 believe the accident was the result of a power surge and the terrorist story was a vast government cover up, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary. The victim bullying that occurred in order to get witnesses to agree with the conspiracy theorists’ take on events showed a complete lack of empathy for the people who were actually there, in order to satisfy their own unfounded beliefs. Classic psychopath.

The Psychopath Test is not generally laugh out loud funny but it’s never dull. Ronson is wry and incisive. He hunts down the ridiculous and presents it in all its glory. Sometimes the humour simply comes from what he uncovers or from the responses his interviewees give, but Ronson’s straightforward interview and writing style is perfect for teasing out the gems. Asking Al Dunlap if he is a psychopath, he goes through the checklist with him:

‘Grandiose sense of self-worth?’ I asked.

This would have been a hard one for him to deny, standing as he was below a giant oil painting of himself.

No one is safe from Ronson’s eye for the ludicrous. He digs at psychiatry (using the DSM-IV – the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – to diagnose himself with psychiatric conditions he doesn’t actually have) and at its arch-nemesis Scientology in equal measure.

Ronson has a self-deprecating charm (he complains of anxiety and worries that he might be a psychopath himself) that makes The Psychopath Test effortlessly informative, fun and smart. I always like a book that tangles with the weird and bizarre – my kind of choice for a great holiday book.

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While reading up on Gary Shteyngart for my review of Super Sad True Love Story I realised that he writes blurbs so much he’s become notorious for it. A tumblr is dedicated to it. A short documentary has even been made about it.

 

He jokes that he’s blurbed everything that’s come across his desk – ‘I look for the following: Two covers, one spine, at least 40 pages, ISBN number, title, author’s name. Once those conditions are satisfied, I blurb. And I blurb hard’ – but I thought Super Sad True Love Story was great, I think Shteyngart’s a wonderful writer, so I trust his judgement. But can he really think all these books are as amazing as he makes out?

I pay a lot of attention to the blurbs written by other authors, the excerpts from newspapers and magazines not so much, but the author ones interest me. Most of the time a quote from, say, the New York Times is credited to the publication, not to an individual. And it’s much harder to get a feel for a critic’s personality, you have to know their writing well, and a certain degree of impartiality and objectivity is part of the job description. Whereas, authors’ likes and dislikes are all laid out for you in the types of book they write. When I read a book I feel like I get to know the person who wrote it.

If I admire the author that wrote the blurb I’m intrigued about the book itself (I noted that American Gods has a blurb from Michael Chabon after I’d read The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay: ‘Dark, fun and nourishing to the soul’. So, so true).

If I read a book and love it I’ll seek out the author who blurbed it (Neil Gaiman blurbed Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: ‘Unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years’).

A little part of me read American Gods because of these two blurbs. Even though I am aware that the authors involved are Gaiman’s friends.

I’m put off a book if the writer that blurbed it wrote a book I couldn’t stand (even for books that sound good). A.D. Miller probably thought his own book was brilliant, how can I trust his judgement on others?

It also puts me off authors I’ve never read because they blurbed a book I didn’t enjoy. Emma Donoghue, I’m looking at you. Her blurb for State of Wonder: ‘Perfect from first page to last … This is her masterpiece.’ I dare to disagree. To be fair I probably was never going to read Room anyway.

Is all this trust in blurbs completely irrational?

If they’re doing the job nature intended, blurbs give you an idea of what type of book it is. Writers usually want authors of a similar type or genre to blurb for them. Like Jon Ronson blurbing for Will Storr – and you know what, having never heard of Storr but having read, and thoroughly enjoyed Ronson I had a good look at Storr’s new book, The Heretics, based purely on the Ronson blurb, and now I want to read it.

Maybe it’s all a ploy on the part of the blurber to get us to read something that’s similar to theirs but not nearly as good, thereby making their books look awesome by comparison.

I like to believe that author blurbing is something more than authors randomly pimping out their name. Sometimes it’s a favour to a friend that inspires them to blurb (others more cynical than I, like Salon‘s Laura Miller, would say it’s merely evidence of the cliquishness and insularity of publishing, because an author’s friend couldn’t possibly love their book on its own merits), plain old admiration or wanting to give new authors a chance by giving them some vicarious credibility. Shteyngart argues that it’s hard enough to get people to read literary fiction so why not be enthusiastic, why not help get people to actually read these books?

In reality blurbing probably is a mercenary business. It must be awkward and painful for new authors to be forced to solicit blurbs from famous authors just because those pesky readers are still silly enough to believe them. Maybe I should know better but, like some superstitions, getting a feel for a book based on blurbs is a habit I can’t let go of. Even if I do know all blurbing’s dirty little secrets.