Lexical Undertakings - #2
Books read in April 2018
The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby
And the Heart Says Whatever by Emily Gould
You by Caroline Kepnes
How did The Psychopath Test: A Journey Into the Madness Test stay near the top of the NYT bestseller list for 12 weeks? I’m baffled.
It’s too simple to say that I didn’t really think it was a good book. It’s just barely a book. It’s several, scattered news stories cobbled together, and then bound and given a truly stunning cover. Jon Ronson is a journalist, known for covering out-there, interesting people. He’s the guy who wrote The Men Who Stare At Goats, which became a movie about a secret branch of the US Army whose members believed that with enough mental preparation they could stare through a wall and kill a goat. From this, he got a reputation as a gonzo journalist who could handle the crazy with aplomb.
Because of this reputation, the book starts with a group of academics contacting Ronson about a cryptic handmade book they’ve all been sent. His investigation leads him to Dr. Douglas Hofstadter, whose book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid is referenced throughout the handmade book. Hofstadter offers the obvious answer -- the Swedish man who ‘translated’ the book actually wrote it and the only reason he did is because he is nuts.
I was hoping that Ronson would jump from here into asking whether there was any room for a reputation for handling ‘the crazy’ with aplomb or for ‘he’s nuts’ as an explanation for anything in the 21st century. Ronson touches on these ideas a little bit -- he quotes L.J. Davis early on, whose 1997 review of the DSM states, “It may very well be that the frotterist is a helpless victim in the clutches of his obsession, but it’s equally possible that he’s simply a bored creep looking for a cheap thrill”. A little over ten years later, I cannot fathom anyone even posing this question, let alone seriously expressing the second opinion in writing. I was hoping for a nuanced look into why.
Instead, Ronson jumps from Hofstadter to the Swedish translator/writer to scientologists who deny psychiatrists. He meets a prisoner who tells him he faked ‘madness’ by imitating movies and is now trapped in an intensive-care hospital. His doctors say he may have been trying to fake his ‘crazy’ but he is, in fact, a psychopath. Ronson travels to learn how most psychiatrists diagnose psychopaths, decides that most people are psychopaths, tries to diagnose the world’s highest CEOs as psychopaths, worries that, in fact, journalists profit inappropriately from mental unrest, how the DSM was put together, how a famous British leaker turned into a 7/7 and 9/11 truther and….there is (somehow) more. It’s enjoyable to read. But The Psychopath Test is a collection of half-finished articles that should have been hemmed together with a far stronger thread and should not have made Ronson nearly as much money as I know it did.
Although, just like everyone else, I’m unclear on how popularity, making money, and the NYT bestseller list relate to quality in the first place. I reread Funny Girl, which is one of my favorite books, this month. I love Nick Hornby, best known for High Fidelity, in general, but I love this book in particular. It’s about a British sitcom star (hint: she’s the funny girl) and the 1960s era sitcom she stars in. Like a really good sitcom, it’s funny and then poignant and nostalgic without being sugary. The story tells how sitcoms, and entertaining ‘telly’ in general, had to fight and claw for respect on the BBC. The sitcom’s stars, producers, and writers labor to birth a new Britain, the one that is now across the channel from where I grew up and has reality TV. The 60s birthed the world I live in today and I think I will never tire of the origin story, especially when it’s written so charmingly.
Emily Gould is one of the direct descendants of the ‘anything goes as long as its entertaining’ mentality that the 60s helped bring forward. She’s a controversial figure, at best, and something else entirely at worst. Gould was an editor at Gawker in the early 2000s and was one of the first really big bloggers (circa 2005-2007). Her star burned fast and bright as she wrote nasty, entertaining gossip and juicy tidbits about her life in 10-12 posts a day. In some ways, it was out before I was even 13 years old. In certain circles, Emily Gould is hated. Gawker was mean and nasty, I’ve been told, but it had already been brought down Hulk Hogan’s sex tape by the time I was paying attention. In the circle’s of the internet I run in, Gould is infamous. There’s a magazine cover story about the lessons she’s learned. There’s a book of essays and then a novel -- and a widely circulated, highly personal Medium essay about how incredibly broke writing a novel made her.
That Medium essay, “What My Novel Cost Me” is what inspired me to buy and read her book of essays And the Heart Says Whatever. The Medium essay, like a lot of Gould’s work, is both incredibly brave and a little annoying. She writes about how she blew her $200,000 book advance on things like living alone (in Brooklyn!) and having health insurance and how she continued to buy herself and others fancy coffees until there was literally nothing in her coffers. On the one hand, I appreciate any time that anyone writes about their personal understanding of money because it’s fascinating. On the other, the reason most people don’t is because writing about your daily financial decisions invites others to judge you and judge her I did.
And the Heart Says Whatever is the book that Gould got a $200,000 advance on and it’s the book, she acknowledges, that flopped hard enough to ensure she wouldn’t get another one. I often know when a book I’m reading was very successful. I rarely know when a book I’m reading flopped. It changes the experience, because you lurk around the pages, trying to figure out what exactly went wrong here.
I once sent a profile of Gould to a friend without any context. The friend reacted that the woman in it sounded so annoying. But that’s part of what I find charming about Emily Gould-- And the Heart Says Whatever is full of stories that reveal too much, that are cloying and privileged, that invite judgement and then seem to reel from that judgement. And yet, these stories are about the life of a woman in a generation that I recognize. She has a six-year long live-in relationship which is not a marriage and it crumbles apart. She smokes too much pot. She loves New York City and is helping to make Brooklyn expensive while complaining about it. She has a job that dashes her hopes and thinks that the same things are cool that I do. She takes a writing workshop in New York City and “the first prompt [the professor] gave us was simple: ‘I want you to look within and ask yourself this question: How am I a victim?”
Emily Gould is many of the things I am, many I wish I was and many I am glad I am not. But I loved reading her understanding of the world, because, fundamentally, it’s shaped by the idea that books and those who write them are sacred. She cherishes the idea of becoming a writer and overshares in her pursuit of it.
A really good thriller combines a fascination with mental health with a fascination with victimhood. Is the killer a victim of his obsession? Did the victim do something to invite this upon themselves? You by Caroline Kepnes is a really good thriller. Right off the bat, the narrator is coming at you -- “You walk into the bookstore and keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn't slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl and your nails are square and your V-neck sweater is beige and it's impossible to know if you're wearing a bra but I don't think that you are. You're so clean that you're dirty”
The entire book is written in these engrossing, creepy, tantalizing sentences. I enjoyed the hell out of it -- especially the audiobook, narrated by Santino Fontana -- particularly because Joe Goldberg, the super creepy narrator, owns a bookstore. He judges other characters constantly, including the object of his obsession, for the books they choose to read. And he points out right away that most people who come into his store try to disguise their purchases because most people won’t admit what they like. As someone who was a little embarrassed to reading a titillating stalker thriller, I was duly chastised.
Joe stalks the hell out of the girl who walks into his bookstore, Beck. After I finished (so...like 14 hours after I started) I found some reviews, including one that encourage readers to answer Do you think that Beck was stupid or just naive? Part of our obsession with victimhood stems from this question. Is it possible to be smart enough or tough enough to prevent your own victimhood? No matter how impossible this is to answer, it’s one of our favorite debates. In You, Joe has an easier time stalking Beck because she’s a New York writer living in a post-Emily Gould world and tweets constantly. She leaves her shades open and he looks into her apartment. He reads her email. And some readers want to warn her that social media opens your life up too much, that electronic communications are inherently unsafe, and that privacy is more important than sunshine. But those aren’t the things I wanted to warn Beck about: Joe makes her wait an hour on their first date, he does out-out-the-box sexual things to her (that she likes) but doesn’t ask first, and he never introduces her to his friends or people from his life.
If you ask me, it’s not possible to be smart enough or tough enough to prevent your own victimhood because, as Jon Ronson pointed out, our society isn’t always built on rationality. Life isn’t a board game where following the rules and being strategic guarantees the best results. But if we are going to use scary stories to talk about how young women should focus on preventing victimhood, let’s tell them to pay attention to whether the people they know are kind, considerate, and calm. Let’s not tell them to close themselves up and stop expressing anything. And let’s all enjoy whatever entertainment we want, guilt-free, including sitcoms, blogs, and stalker thrillers.