It was hearing that Psychopath Test was coming out that got me interested in Jon Ronson. At the time, the only of his books my library carried was Men Who Stare At Goats, a book that had been sitting on my reading list for some time. So I read that, enjoyed it, and put Psychopath Test on hold as soon as it came out. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only one and it took a really long time for my turn to get it.
Like Men Who Stare At Goats, the writing is a real trip. It’s not so much as exposé as it is a journey – a meandering journey that occasionally slips in time and subject. Rather than an argument of a thesis, it reads more like a discovery.
It straddles the line between non-fiction and fiction, between history and personal experience, and between the logical and the totally insane. There were times when I couldn’t believe that what Ronson was reporting could be true, that people really said what he said they said in interviews, for example. But pull up the original articles and there it is, in all its glorious craziness.
It’s an interesting (and quick!) read with complicated conclusions. Ronson explores the Scientology-styled anti-psychiatry and he looks at those who believe in it so much that they diagnose and medicate 4-year-olds with bipolar. Never are the issues presented as simple or one-sided, and Ronson is very good at leading his readers down one path and then veering in a very different direction. It’s interesting and refreshing.
I can’t close without commenting on how perfect the cover design is for this book. I don’t often see a cover that is so memorable and perfectly suited for the subject!
Black Man (or Thirteen, as it’s known in the US) envisions a future in which genetically modified super-soldiers have come and gone. Carl Marsalis is a ‘Variant Thirteen’ whose escaped persecution by becoming persecutor, his job is to use his enhanced abilities to hunt down others like himself.
It was an interesting book with a rather frightening image of the future. For one thing, the US has been split apart by ideology, with a vast portion fenced off and backwards, an anti-technology society referred to as ‘Jesusland.’ The hints dropped throughout the book about how this future came about are frighteningly plausible.
Given the subject matter, it should come as no surprise that the book contains quite a bit of graphic violence. It did verge on the gratuitous at times, but it fights with the context. Thirteens are hated and excluded from society precisely because of their psychopathic violent tendencies.
I’ve read that the name was changed in the US to avoid the more racially-charged title. It’s a shame, because the fact that Carl Marsalis is black plays a fairly important role in the story. The whole idea of the ‘Variant Thirteen,’ people who are seen as not quite people, echoes back to the rhetoric we’ve so often heard in the context of race. To censor the title, eliminating the big neon sign pointing at the analogy of the book, doesn’t avoid racism. Rather, it just hides it – and it’s questionable just how much use not talking about a problem can have in fixing it.
All in all, a solid future-fiction with a good plot and an excellent premise.