July 8th, 2011
|12:32 pm - The Psychopath Test|
I have just finished The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson on audio. This is a short and funny book in the oblique ethnographic style of journalism that Ronson always employs, and he reads it himself.
Ronson pays to be trained by Bob Hare to administer his psychopath test which allows you to identify psychopaths from personal interview. He then applies this test to a range of potential candidates, some in prison and some billionaires, and concludes that many fit the classification fairly well. Everyone involved - sane or mad - ends up looking fairly ridiculous.
When I told people I was reading the book each one said 'Oh, I heard about that, he ended up finding he was a psychopath himself.' But nothing like this happens in the book. It is the conventional notion - the urban myth - which people have about the book, but completely without foundation. I think people seek symmetrical closure to any destabilising narrative.
In fact the narrative is more like this (not necessarily linear)
- Ronson gets interested in psychopathy, learns the test and administers it
- he starts to worry about what it means to have the power to categorise people as mentally ill
- he also worries about the dire impact psychopaths have on society (neither of these threads reach a resolution)
- towards the end he opens up into a wider discussion of the way madness is labelled and treated, intolerance of difference, and how madness is used by journalists like himself
The structure is more like a series of imperfectly-addressed questions than a neat gotcha. It reflects Ronson's own psychological characteristics - free-floating anxiety, humour, indecisiveness, reluctance to impose meaning.
To over-simplify, towards the end Ronson says that the use of the mentally unstable in the media (for example on 'reality TV') both assuages our anxiety about the boundaries of sanity, while stoking our anxious self-policing. That making a spectacle of borderline cases enforces the boundaries of 'sanity' and cultural conformity, and encourages people to mask and medicate their differences.
His conclusion is that while the extremes of (for example) psychopathy must be addressed, we need to be more tolerant of a range of variation. That sounds a bit weak doesn't it, but Ronson has a kind of wolf-in-sheep's-clothing strength.
Rachel Cooke in the Observer: Generally negative -'The constant jokes are insanely funny but fail to mask the lack of a deeper purpose'
Will Self in the Guardian: Generally positive - '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.'
The two reviews make it sound like a wacky knock-about comedy, but the humour in the book is quite dry and subtle.