The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson – review
Jon Ronson's tour of the psy-professions keeps Will Self enthralled.
guardian.co.uk, Friday 27 May 2011 11.39 BST
It's all in the timing ... Emmanuel 'Toto' Constant, who once boasted that voodoo and the CIA shielded him from trouble, at a press conference in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, 1994.
In Leo Rosten's unparalleled encyclopedia of the Jewish world-view, The Joy of Yiddish, he writes: "To define a nebech simply as an unlucky man is to miss the many nuances, from pity to contempt, the word affords." And then, as is always the way with Rosten – and Yiddish – he sharpens ones understanding illustratively: "A nebech is sometimes defined as the kind of person who always picks up what a shlemiel knocks over." To the non-Jewish reader this, of course, raises the question of what a shlemiel is – but you don't need to go out and buy a copy of Rosten in order to reach an understanding of this, you simply need to read the works of Jon Ronson.
In a series of bravura feature articles, documentary films and three books (one of which, The Men Who Stare at Goats, has been made, counter-intuitively, into a major motion picture starring George Clooney), Ronson has comprehensively mapped the slapstick gavotte that the nebech and the shlemiel dance together – treading on each other's feet, tearing their clothes and cannoning into other couples on the dancefloor of life. It's a comic method of which Ronson himself is by no means unaware; in his latest peregrination, The Psychopath Test, he writes of Toto Constant, a sinister Haitian leader of death-squads, to whom Ronson has applied the "test" of the title: "There had been something reassuringly familiar about him at the beginning. He'd seemed diminutive, self-deprecating, nebbishy, which are all the things I am. Could he have been mirroring me, reflecting myself back at me?"
To which the only possible answer is: why yes, of course, because all the characters in a Ronson book are nebeches until they're exposed for the shlemiels they truly are. I say "characters" advisedly, because Ronson's books are ostensibly documentary in form, with the nebech protagonist – seemingly by chance – setting out on a quest that leads him, with many a twist and turn, through the dark hinterland of the human psyche; the truth is that such is the artfulness of Ronson's arrangement of material and dialogue, that the finished result feels as if it is verging on the fictive. Let me state for the record: at his best, Ronson is one of the finest comic writers working today. I began The Psychopath Test late at night, tired, dispirited and ill – then found myself laughing like the proverbial loon for page after page, for approximately the first 40, at least.
It's all about timing, of course: by inserting his own character with a forensic skill into the very real and frightening world that surrounds us all, Ronson achieves a gag-rate that puts him on a par with that master nebech Woody Allen. But like Allen, Ronson has an instability – or rather, a dirty secret – that both shades his comedy in stark relief and also undermines it. This is that most destructive of desires for the farceur: the need to be taken seriously. In Allen this took the form of making sub-Bergmanesque films, in Ronson it's his choice of subject-matter.
The Psychopath Test begins with Ronson being called upon by a friend of a friend to investigate a mysterious and lavish handmade book, Being or Nothingness, that has been circulated throughout a worldwide community of academic wonks. A further chance encounter with an academic studying psychopathy leads Ronson to Bob Hare, the man who has formulated the definitive questionnaire for diagnosing psychopaths. Ronson flies to Gothenburg in Sweden to track down the author of the mysterious text, and also attends Hare's course in order to become an accredited psychopath-spotter. It's these two, divergent narratives – the one bizarre and whimsical, the other bizarre and anything but – that uncoil throughout a text populated with Ronson's trademark eccentrics.
There's Petter Nordlund, the enigmatic author of the mysterious text, and Hare, the equally enigmatic Van Helsing of psychopathy. There are Elliott Barker and Gary Maier – both latterly of the Oak Ridge Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ontario – who far from viewing psychopaths as incurable, decided that what they needed were marathon LSD-fuelled encounter sessions. There's "Tony", a diagnosed psychopathic Broadmoor patient Ronson is introduced to by "Brian", a Scientologist who works for CCHR (Citizen's Commission on Human Rights), the cult's anti-psychiatry pressure group. This gives him an opportunity to reprise the straightforwardly nutty career of Scientology's founder, L Ron Hubbard – just as the Oak Ridge boys' tale allows him to recount that of the reliably fruit-cakey anti-psychiatrist, RD Laing.
Ronson's quest for psychopaths takes him to upstate New York to visit the aforementioned Toto Constant in Coxsackie Correctional Institution, and down to Shubuta, Mississippi, for a testing encounter with Al Dunlap, a sort of maximum Gordon Gekko figure, who laid waste to the workforce of the valetudinarian Sunbeam Toasters. And so the gyre goes on widening, to take in such figures as David Shayler, quondam spy and latter-day transvestite-cum-messiah, and misguided ones such as Paul Britton, the clinical psychologist and criminal profiler whose work contributed to the wrongful arrest of Colin Stagg for the murder of Rachel Nickell.
However, just as this schema does a disservice to the teeming variety of The Psychopath Test, so my use of slang epithets for mental illness glosses over the instability that undermines Ronson's comedic genius. In truth, there's nothing remotely funny about the Stagg case, any more than there is about the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders), the vast and ever-ramifying catalogue of aberrancy put out by the American Psychiatric Association. The epiphanic moment in The Psychopath Test comes when Ronson asks Robert Spitzer, the editor under whose aegis the DSM expanded from a slim booklet to a biblical tome, whether it's possible that "he'd inadvertently created a world in which some ordinary behaviours were being labelled mental disorders", and Spitzer answers: "I don't know."
Ronson wants us to understand how imperfectly the psy-professions have mapped the shifting sands of sanity – and that's a laudable aim; but his methodology, which is to take his own neurotic persona and use its self-examination as a yardstick against which to judge the psychoses and personality disorders of the seriously disturbed, isn't really fit for purpose. There is no comparison possible between the nebech and the homicidal maniac, none at all; while nor can all the world's malefactors be characterised as shlemiels. Ronson's investigation of the genie that emerged from the pages of the DSM takes in the ghastly lockstep between Big Pharma and the psychiatric profession, which has led to such neo-medieval tortures as the medicating of children for bipolar disorder, and the runaway diagnoses of autism and attention deficit disorder. "I don't know" is hardly an acceptable mea culpa.
By now you'll hopefully have grasped what a schlemiel is – basically a more unlikeable, and more culpable, form of the nebech. Rosten says: "You feel sorry for a nebech; you can dislike a shlemiel." 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 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.
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. To quote Rosten again: "There is a well-known wisecrack: 'When a nebech leaves the room, you feel as if someone came in.'"
Will Self's Walking to Hollywood is published by Bloomsbury.