Book Review: "Lost At Sea:The Jon Ronson Mysteries"
I came to this book expecting sensationalism. I thought: Why else would a “journalist” be writing these stories? Insane Clown Posse? North Pole, Alaska? Spiritual healers? Indigo Children? Actually, banal sensationalism was exactly what I wanted. The book jacket sure did sell it to me.
All prejudices aside, author Jon Ronson’s writing does the stories justice. Rather than cheapening his subject matter and overemphasizing any sensational aspects, he takes a serious approach to each story. It is easy enough to note the casual, occasionally humorous, often subjective tone and discredit Ronson’s work as serious investigative journalism. Yet it is certainly possible to meaningfully integrate rigor and subjectivity into a piece of journalism. I would say that the formula is very precise and unforgiving. Ronson demonstrates that he has mastered it. He writes simply, but with a clarity and rhythm that does not detract from the complexity of the ideas that he is working with.
The stories, individually, speak for themselves. They certainly were intriguing and at times bizarre, but I’ve read about bizarre things before. After a while, you come to terms with the fact that the world is full of incredible people and their incredible feats of self-expression. On one hand, reading stories like this makes you wonder about the relative complacency that characterizes your own habits, pastimes, preoccupations, etc. Maybe you are relieved by the fact that you have not spent your career waiting to establish contact with extraterrestrial life. Yet there just might be something special about that man’s life that is missing in yours…maybe?
What intrigued me was the collection as a whole and whatever brought all these personalities together between these book jacket flaps. I wondered why Ronson placed a piece on how insurmountable debt drove a man to suicide between the story of an alleged cheating scheme on a popular TV game show and that of “The Sociopath Mind Guru and the TV Hypnotist.” As I pondered this, I considered also the book’s title "Lost at Sea." It references the last story in the collection, in which Ronson investigates the disappearance of a young woman aboard a Disney cruise liner. It reminds me of the existentialism I supposedly studied in high school. Being lost suggests a state of disorientation and incomprehension, though it is usually temporary. The sea suggests something that is eternal and inconceivable, with no beginning and no end. Thus, to be eternally lost…this is killing me.
All of Ronson’s characters appear to have well-defined purposes for their lives, at least for a little while. I don’t understand how being “lost at sea” relates. Except when considering the young woman who was literally lost at sea. I decide to drop the issue.
So what is that formula I mentioned above? I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I can tell you when it has been correctly executed, just as the epicure could identify a skillfully prepared meal without necessarily listing each and every ingredient. I don’t know how you would describe Ronson’s unique talent. To me, it does not seem to be a talent at all. Instead, I think it is an acute sense and understanding of humanity, refined over years of careful observation. Careful, meaning that not only is Ronson’s reporting exhaustive, but it seeks to connect with and understand the story and the people that create it.
That is what is truly striking about Ronson’s work. He takes these divergent experiences and deconstructs them into their basic human motivations—what I’d refer to as the lowest common denominator for all human beings. For some (probably most) of these personalities, there’s money to be made. Some are pursuing some elusive Holy Grail. Some are trying to find something to pursue. Some are trying to reach out to and help other human beings. As readers, we are somehow able to relate to these folks and their obsessions, joys, and tragedies. We realize that the things that they are seeking are essentially those that we are seeking: happiness, respect, companionship, a raison d’être. Ronson does not treat “the absurd” as absurd or “the mundane” as mundane, but rather, it humanizes both with a broader, more empathetic perspective.
I think this translates to better-informed and more meaningful, relevant, even instructive journalism. After all, I think reading (and writing) journalism is meant to be this sort of learning experience, notwithstanding the ruthlessly profit-hungry beast that news media can sometimes be. We learn just how vast humanity and its innate resources for adaptability, creativity, and expression can be amidst any given environmental circumstances, but also that all 7 billion(?) of us are really only human beings, all born from the same basic elements of humanity. It could be that we all are lost at sea.