I: THE PSYCHOPATH TEST, JON RONSON. to decide how i feel about jon ronson, i need to give a name to what i think he's doing. i read lost at sea, a collection of his articles for the guardian, and sort of concluded that he's a middlebrow comic nonfiction writer; his research doesn't seem especially rigorous, but that's par for the course with short personal essays, and it's entertaining stuff. the psychopath test (subtitled "a journey through the madness industry") reframes things a bit: it's a book-length treatment of a single theme, anchored by the application of a checklist of psychopathic traits to subjects like a ruthless business executive, a former haitian death squad leader, a man who claims he faked psychopathy to avoid jail, members of the media (himself especially), and so on. he also considers how the media and pharmaceutical industry benefit from mental illness and/or perceptions of it, and, er, hunts down the publisher of a really fancy zine. he's often very funny, but he's also misleading and unsatisfying when he ventures into dark places with a light touch. he presents some wild old psychiatric research on mental institutions,* for example, without explaining that its methodology was subsequently and definitively torn apart.** at what point does curating information in that way become irresponsible?
in his review of the book, fellow guardian contributor will self notes that "at his best, ronson is one of the finest comic writers working today," then implies in the nicest possible way that pop scholarship like his might be kind of horrifying.*** i don't think ronson is a monster, professional and personal feelings about responsible research aside; i do think that someone who makes $250,000 ("double that in a good year," as he tells us in "amber waves of green," a piece he wrote for GQ) should hire a straight-up research assistant if he wants to be taken seriously. for better or for worse, this gal expects copious footnotes in her comic nonfiction (i miss you, DFW).
*such as david rosenhan's "on being sane in insane places," published in science in 1973, in which he and seven other subjects faked their way into inpatient treatment for insanity and were given antipsychotic drugs and held for an average of nineteen days, even though they behaved completely normally after admission.
**a friend adjacent to "the madness industry" who read the psychopath test at the same time i did sent me two pieces from a 1975 issue of the journal of abnormal psychology: robert l. spitzer's "on pseudoscience in science, logic in remission, and psychiatric diagnosis: a critique of rosenhan's 'on being sane in insane places" and theodore millon's "reflections on rosenhan's 'on being sane in insane places.'"
***that courtly criticism, in part:
So mild – and, dare I say, humane – is the tendency of Ronson's satire that when he ventures out into the world of political extremists, or military fanatics, or psychiatric persecutors, he is determined to see the nebech in everyone – until they're revealed as shlemiels. But just as there was a break-point in [Ronson's] The Men Who Stare at Goats, one that occurred when the heirs to the new age military theorists actually began torturing Iraqi detainees with hideous ditties from kids' TV shows, so there's a break-point in The Psychopath Test when this reader, at least, began to think: these people aren't merely shlemiels, they're utter bastards. From then on the humour is sucked out of the text into the vacuum of a dark and cruel space.****and then it doesn't! many of the sources in his bibliography are secondary (books and magazine articles); a fact checker who handed over backup like that would be unlikely to work for me again.
Naturally, I don't discount the possibility that Ronson is only too aware of what he's up to here – he's undoubtedly a clever and thoughtful man. By constructing his books so that they start off achingly funny then at a certain juncture become naggingly painful, he does indeed force us to think more deeply about the subject at hand. This, surely, is all that contemporary satire can achieve: in a world with a relativistic moral compass, it can't enjoin us to do the right thing – for which there is no longer any consensus – but only to think about what the right thing might possibly be. That Ronson's books, rather than providing us with the material we need to think about these questions, can only indicate the further reading we should do,**** is also mandated by his authorial persona.