Author: Jon Ronson
Type: Non-fiction, essays (anthology)
Full title: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries
Published: 2001-2012 (original essays); 2012 (this collection)
I read it: July 2018
From the first essay about Insane Clown Posse and their strange religious leanings, Jon Ronson’s collection of essays is highly readable and almost always fascinating. That is, if you’re willing to balance the fascination with the frustration.
The frustration comes from the large cast of credulous followers and the criminals, crooks, and cultists who they follow. The sections of the book progress from amusing (“The Strange Things We’re Willing to Believe”) to unsettling (“Stepping Over the Line”). For example, this latter section includes a story about a sketchy assisted suicide peddler titled “‘I Make it Look Like They Died in Their Sleep.'” The subject of the story is not knowingly dangerous, but like many people Ronson meets in his travels, is simply deluded about the supernatural. As Ronson summarizes the words of someone close to the primary subject: “He says he doesn’t mean George derives psychopathic pleasure from being around death. Instead he thinks George is too in love with the afterlife. He believes in it too much and the pleasure he gets is from clapping and cheering his clients to a better place.”
Only someone as curious, awkwardly open, and visually unimposing as Ronson could work his way into the strange circles that he does. He tries to see all angles and take a sociological point of view, although there are times I wanted him to rail against the fraudsters more energetically. The most high-profile of these is probably Sylvia Browne, the rich slimeball who Ronson tries to interview while on one of her cruises. But he has to balance his skeptical indignation with the social strategies that might get him that much closer to the movers and shakers, which is especially difficult when those people have resources and influence.
Not every essay earns a spot in the memory banks. “Death at the Chateau” and “‘I’ve Thought About Doing Myself in Loads of Times…'” are vague musings on murder or self-demise, and are ultimately forgettable. “The Fall of a Pop Impresario” is a deep dive and probably notable journalism, but I had no idea who the person being written about was. Another piece explores the leftover artifacts from filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s estate, but I’m not enough of a film superfan to care about the trivia.
But these dull pages are quickly counterbalanced, and “Amber Waves of Green” is a miniature masterpiece. Ronson conducts an experiment to meet Americans who each have five times more income than the previous person. (He includes himself at one of the levels, honorably stating his annual income in the process—and it should not be a taboo to do so!) The story was extra intriguing to me because the lower-middle class couple he meets is from Urbandale, Iowa, just a suburb over from where I live. He hones in on a sad pattern he notices about how people justify income inequality, especially when they themselves are in the lower rungs.
Maybe Ellen’s right. Maybe it would be bad to have your own plane. But for a second Dennis flashes into my mind, with his own imagined perils of having more money. I remember that Karl Marx line about religion being the opium of the people—his idea that the elites keep the masses subdued with illusory happiness. But Dennis and Ellen have both suggested to me, surely fallaciously, that greater fortune might lead to unexpected sadness. So we’re actually very good at inventing our own opium.
The essay includes a couple insights from the super-rich as well. So while it’s not a large data set, it’s still an important experiment that should be run many times over.
Finally, the title story is a heartbreaker. The phrase “lost at sea” could have referred to the Sylvia Browne piece, or more generally to the way that the people in these stories flail through life while trying to find a meaningful raft to climb up onto. Specifically, the title describes the final essay, about a person falling overboard while working as an employee on a Disney cruise line, and the shady way the story was covered up by other employees and the company itself. It’s such a weirdly modern circumstance and Ronson’s telling of it makes humankind seem mysterious and ungraspable all over again.