Highly entertaining but to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Jon Ronson practices a brand of what we might call “gonzo journalism”. Gonzo journalism distinguishes itself in that its practitioners freely use their subjectivity as features of their stories. They involve themselves, air their opinions and take sides, in the stories that they cover. They don’t pretend to have any sort of journalistic objectivity. They are characters in the stories they write.
Ronson’s gift is that he has a perspective and a style that lends itself to this type of writing. Disarmingly wry and matter-of-fact, but prone to bouts of gentle cynicism at times, Ronson’s narrative voice anchors his prose with a sense of slightly bemused detachment, even as he participates in the story as an active foil to his subjects.
It’s an entertaining recipe, as Ronson is not afraid to insert his own opinions and points of view, and when he voices them to his often high-strung subjects or interviewees, or otherwise acts on them, they sometimes react with drama, much of it I must shamefully admit is quite fascinating to read.
In a piece about a small Christian sect known as the Jesus Christians, for example, Ronson writes that the leader of said sect openly admitted to him that he was trying to use Ronson’s story as a would-be pulpit to publicise the organ-donating activities of their adherents. After reading the published story and deciding that he hated it, however, he deluged Ronson with a torrent of sanctimonious videos, which Ronson recounts with a sort of grim thoroughness.
It helps that many of Ronson’s subjects, by dint of his subject matter, have a certain kookiness to them. Ronson has a talent for sniffing out or otherwise inventing interesting, weird premises for his stories, such as when he attempts to re-enact James Bond’s driving, boozing travails through France in the Ian Fleming novel Goldfinger, or merely just interviewing the members of Insane Clown Posse and letting them speak for themselves.
Of course, as with anything, we should be wary of subjectivity. Ronson’s stories are skewed toward entertaining the reader first, and events, portrayals and recountings can and do seem a little tweaked to suit that purpose at times. This is not an indictment of Ronson in particular, but an observation of an inevitability. In the case of the essays and articles in this book, many of them feature slightly outsized characters, brazen in their beliefs and brash in their actions. Ronson always takes the role of the more grounded, slightly bemused outsider. His subjects are sometimes almost theatrically entertaining. Then there’s that undercurrent of sardonic humor that underlies everything, which is Ronson imputing ironic meaning into the gestures, words and actions of his subjects. The reader laughs with Ronson, at the things he chooses to examine through his unabashedly subjective lens.
But that doesn’t detract from the virtues of the book at all. Ronson has a gift of plumbing the absurdities of human existence, of drawing significance and meaning out of the chaos of civilization, in a way that preserves dignity and humor. Lost at Sea is a wonderful collection of eclectic pieces, that, while not the most reliable in the classic sense, still succeed at what they do – to paint colorful portraits of life’s oddities.
Some memorable pieces:
Doesn’t Everyone Have A Solar?: Jon Ronson talks to a bunch of AIs in a bid to understand transhumanists. Signal to noise ratio is not encouraging.
I Looked Into the Camera. And I just Said It: A piece on Ray Gosling, a TV presenter arrested on murder charges for confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. One of Ronson’s most entertaining subjects, a diva so extreme he utters fake murder confessions on a whim.
Have You Ever Stood Next to an Elephant, My Friend? Ronson’s piece on Insane Clown Posse (ICP), a couple of nitwits whose terrible rap is hilariously at odds with their secret Jesus agenda. Not to mention they were the originators of the meme “f#$@#n magnets, how do they work?”
The Hunger Games: Ronson interviews a couple of competitive eaters, a field of human endeavor that I find endlessly fascinating and, honestly, pointless. Also, I once watched Matt Stonie, this tiny hundred-pound kid, eat 20,000 calories in an hour.
Santa’s Little Conspirators: All’s not well in small-town North Pole, Alaska, where the inhabitants have a Santa-based economy. Ronson interviews an inhabitant, a real-life Grinch, that abhors everything about it.
Phoning A Fried: A hilariously sad account of the famous trial of Charles Ingram, a British Army Major who was found cheating at Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and who was notoriously humiliated at his defense for what really was a very petty crime.
Who Killed Richard Cullen? A sober story (written pre-2008 crisis) about how financially incompetent people were deliberately targeted as recipients of junk mail offering credit cards and loans to subprime individuals. Also, Jon Ronson creates a sex maniac alter ego to test the aforementioned hypothesis.
The Amazing Adventures of Phoenix Jones: Because I had no idea real-life superheroes were a thing.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Aston Martins