Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Lost at Sea, by John Ronson

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

In this entertaining and informative collection of Jon Ronson’s journalism from the last decade, the reader is taken on a wild ride through some of the zanier excesses of life in the early twenty-first century.

I don’t think I’ve met a Jon Ronson book that I didn’t like. This is my fourth, having started with The Men Who Stare at Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists several years ago, then recently The Psychopath Test which was brilliant and now Lost At Sea, a bulging collection of Ronson’s journalism.

Ronson’s genius is to write like a comic novelist, with himself as the main character (is it any wonder that The Men Who Stare At Goats was made into a film?). Each page is filled with gripping dialogue that you can’t tear yourself away from. He also has the knack of sniffing out intriguing stories and homing in on an unusual detail where other journalists might go for a grander picture. He shows that truth and reality might just be found in the offbeat and eccentric. It could be argued that Ronson is manipulating the facts, or arranging them in such a way as to make his writing more interesting and well-paced, what Alfred Hitchcock gave as his prescription for drama: life with the dull bits left out. In the end, I think you just have to trust that Ronson is giving a balanced and honest description of all that he encounters in his journalistic encounters.

If Ronson’s work has a journalistic precursor it’s probably Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Mackay chronicled a lot of similar subjects: economic bubbles, fortune telling, strange murder cases and other religious, political and popular follies. Mackay’s book is still in print and considered a classic. It’s tempting to think that Ronson’s books will have a similar longevity, due to their usefulness as vivid sketches of the times. On a deeper level, Ronson ‘s work could be seen as a Freudian excavation of the contemporary subconscious, riddled as it is with irrationality and magic thinking.

At 470 pages, this is a generous collection of Ronson’s journalism. There are plenty of longer pieces, and in general each article is around 20 pages in length. He covers everything form the trials of old pop stars for paedophilia, to cranky fortune tellers. There’s not a dull moment anywhere in the book.

The Psychopath Test has been my favourite so far in the Ronson oeuvre, but I think Lost at Sea must come in second. It’s a good, well rounded collection which highlights the mad underside of life in the early 21stCentury.

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson. Published by Picador. ISBN: 9781447223917 RRP: $19.99