Monday, 9 July 2012

Review: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Psychopaths? (from top) Emmanuel Constant (via, Haitian death-squad leader; Albert John Dunlop (via Asylum), corporate downsizer; Bob Hare, creator of 'The Psychopath Test' (via Vancouver Institute); Jon Ronson (via

As with much journalism, the real interest in Jon Ronson's book is found in the eccentrics he meets, rather than the ideas that he brushes over. He admits as much himself when he begins to discuss the implications of the media's obsession with the mad. Is it exploitative? he wonders, but that's about as far as he gets.

Ronson has several varieties of genius. As a raconteur, he is difficult to match: most of The Psychopath Test comprises masterfully told anecdotes and vignettes, bursting with character and vitality, excellently crafted to wring humour from potentially dark situations. Ronson compellingly strings these scenes together, following a general investigative narrative that starts with the discovery of a cryptic book and picaresquely meanders around the worlds of criminal psychology, Scientology, media, the corporate world and Big Pharma.

Picaresque is an appropriate word, because it captures how episodic, amusing and fictional Ronson's journey seems (see Will Self's review in the Guardian). He is not helped by the fact that he tries to disguise his own level of agency in his investigation, especially in the later chapters: events are set up less and less by Ronson himself, and more and more appear to fall in his lap following a fortuitous phone call or email. And yet these later incidents have been arranged to fit together so artfully that the pretence of completely factual reportage is lost.

There is no reason why such a structure should be a problem intrinsically. After all, we do not expect Ronson to merely publish his unvarnished notes. The problem comes when narrative begins to override emotive or intellectual depth. Ronson skips around so fleetingly, so picaresquely, that he can never really explore an issue. He covers a lot of ground, and raises a lot of interesting points. He brings questions to the forefront of the reader's mind very directly, with an almost naïve, enthusiastic bluntness. But, usually, he will ask a question (which I hear in his voice after watching his excellent Esc& Ctrl web series recently – his style is remarkably conversational and involving), and then leave it at that.

The issue of defining madness and normality, then, which is at the heart of the whole book, never receives analysis. When Ronson discusses the trend towards medicating children in America, he does so over the course of a few paragraphs where he meets one mother. These scenes are vivid, but lack the kind of heart and humanity Louis Theroux brought to the subject.

It is obvious, though, that Ronson has no intention of really attacking the subject. His aim is to entertain, and to be provocative, to prod the reader's mind into response. He acts like a matador who doesn't go for the kill, pricking the bull with his banderilla and leaving without using his sword. Perhaps we, as the audience, should be relieved that our entertainment has not been as cruel or as profound as it could be. Perhaps we are not the audience at all, but the bull.

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