Sunday, November 11, 2012

Us and Them ("Lost At Sea" by Jon Ronson)

Ten years ago this December, a book called Them found its way into American bookstores. Written by a then unknown (to Americans) British journalist named Jon Ronson, Them introduced readers to what the author himself called "extremists"--a collection of men and women who saw the world around them in strange, different, hateful, and downright conspiratorial ways. There were those who believed the world was run by secret lizard-people who have served in the highest of public offices; a man who tries to reform a racist hate-group by making them, in the age of public relations, more appealing; a seemingly unstable Hollywood director who lobbies for creative control by bringing religious leaders to a production meeting; and so on. What made this collection of stories so unique was that, unlike other investigative journalists, Ronson never sought out his subjects to belittle or confront them, though more often than not he's forced into thost situations, sometimes through basic questions; instead, Ronson sought out and followed them in order to better understand them. Because, unlike most of society, Ronson doesn't consider these people to be the outliers that the title of the book suggests: he knows that, rather than being simply "them"--the fringe humans who we feel comfortable rolling our eyes, whose beliefs and behavior we excuse with derision and detachment--they're simply extreme versions of "us," and by trying to understand them, we can better understand ourselves.
Them was following in no short time by The Men Who Stare at Goats--the first of Ronson's books I ever read, and in my opinion still his best--two books on "everyday craziness" that are culled from his print articles, and The Psychopath Test, a look at the prevalence of psychopaths and sociopaths in everyday society, how we identify them, how we have failed to address their presence, and what that means for the non-psychopathic populace. (Spoiler: prisons don't help.) Lost At Sea, published late this year, is the most recent addition to Ronson's works...and where his past books were long-chaptered investigations of "thems," Lost At Sea is a collection of short-chaptered mysteries ranging from unusual murders and TV psychics to new-age hypnotists, faith-healers, cruise workers, and one assisted-suicide advocate who may find a little too much pleasure in the easing of others' pain. Them "thems" are still here, but now the boundaries between what constitutes "them" and "us" are increasingly blurred, and the effect is frequently--and perhaps purposely--unsettling.
In short, Lost At Sea still retains all the traits that make Ronson's writing so enjoyable. He approaches each subject with a mixture of curiosity, apprehension, and empathy--a need to understand tempered by a journalist's reason and a layman's sarcastic common sense--and often finds himself identifying with their struggles, as is the case with a group of Jesus Christians who look to better the world by abandoning material possessions and donating their kidneys to strangers; Ronson never once dismissed their charitable nature--giving an organ to a stranger is, after all, the height of Christian charity--but also finds himself put off by the leader's instability. (You almost wonder, in reading how Ronson is treated by the man, if the leader of the Jesus Christians thinks of himself as a Christ figure destined to be forever martyred.) At the end of the day, Ronson doesn't elevate any of his subjects to the status of outsiders who should be more mainstream, or to that of someone who is persecuted for no clear reason; every person he encounters has essentially, and often self-righteously, made themselves out to be unassuming victims, even as they continue to dig themselves deeper and deeper. (The clearest example of this is psychic Sylvia Browne, who comes off as so brash to cruise-ship attendees that she pushes away even the most willing followers. Ronson seems to see her as a hack cold-reader who is, above all else, just damn exhausted.)
The only disappointing aspect of Ronson's new book is its lack of depth. Yes, the book as a whole covers such a breadth of people and experiences that Ronson seems to be constantly crossing the oceans, meeting up in obscure locations, and going off on week-long excursions with the strange and gullible. (More than once I wondered if Ronson, who talks openly about his own home life, ever has time to be with his family...or if he's constantly off on some sort of investigation.) But the chapters are shorter than usual, and they're over before they should rightfully be. Each of his chapters could very well be their own short book of sorts, and some really should. But in trying to cover so much--to investigate the "them" and, in the process, teach the "us"--he doesn't give us enough to really understand anything. I've always loved Jon Ronson's books for their adventurous tangents--he's investigating one thing, then a tip or recommendation sends him off somewhere completely different, but always to the benefit of his research--but by tossing out those tangents in favor of short-form pieces, which read like half-finished articles at times, he makes himself as a writer seem posivitely...dare I say it?...normal.