Jon Ronson sees insanity all around him. Partially that is because as a journalist he is drawn to write stories in which people engage in erratic behavior. It is also because he has learned The Psychopath Test, and he cannot stop administering the 20-point checklist to everyone around him.
Item 1: Glibness/superficial charm
Item 2: Grandiose sense of self-worth
Item 3: Need for stimulation/proneness to boredom
Item 4: Pathological lying
And, so on. From a rude concierge at a hotel to the CEO of a giant corporation, no matter where Ronson looks, everything's coming up psycho.
The University of Mary Washington's 2013 Chappell Great Lives Lecture Series continues on Thursday, April 25, with a lecture on Madness and Greatness by Nassir Ghaemi, author of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness:
“Most kids grow up leaving something out for Santa at Christmas time when he comes down the chimney. I used to make presents for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
When I picked up a copy of Jeanette Winterson’s recent memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, I couldn’t wait to start the first page. I’ve been fascinated by Winterson’s novels for years, but never imagined she would narrate her life in the coherent, linear style associated with memoirs. In Winterson’s fiction, she constantly manipulates the boundary between fantasy and reality, integrating personal experience, mythology, and philosophy into a fluid conglomeration. Although Why Be Happy does feature some of Winterson’s trademark structural experimentation, it is also an engrossing story about one woman’s experience of dysfunction, madness, violence, love, and religion.
In writing, and in life, it is incredibly difficult to deviate from the paths of least resistance. The established patterns seem so easy and inviting, and it takes amazing willpower and courage to do things a different way. As a writer, Jeffrey Eugenides gracefully avoids clichés and predictability. Both of his previous books, The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, are memorable and unnerving. In his latest novel, The Marriage Plot, Eugenides is not alone in his avoidance of formulaic archetypes. The characters themselves are engaged in a meta-struggle to reject obvious and seemingly inexorable fates.
The Marriage Plot follows the intertwined lives of three central characters: Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus, and Leonard Bankhead. The novel opens in 1982, on the chaotic day that is supposed to send the three of them, and the rest of the graduating class, careening into adulthood. The collective mood is characterized by anticipation: professors have pulled out their dusty robes; parents have loaded new film into their cameras. But things are not as simple or inspiring for the young people who are supposed to leave the university’s protective cloister and fend for themselves in an uncertain world.
"We have no dinosaur, it says on a hand-lettered sign outside a farm that puts on rattlesnake rodeos."
To find pleasure in Conquest of the Useless, you must have at least a passing familiarity with the filmmaker Werner Herzog. Herzog has been writing and directing films for five decades, but only a few of his movies have broken into the American mainstream. The most well known here are the documentary Grizzly Man and the Vietnam War film Rescue Dawn (starring Christian Bale).
Each of Herzog's works oozes with a mood of effortless intensity, as if he has summoned the stress and obsessions of humanity like moths to a flame. Whether it's Timothy Treadwell (Grizzly Man's protagonist, who lived with and was inevitably eaten by bears) or Nosferatu (from Herzog's 1979 remake), the director is singular in his subjects' driven focus on their goals and desire, no matter how self-destructive they may be.
The late Philip K. Dick's works were one of the strongest influences on science fiction writers in the first decade of the 21st century, including the fields of alternate history and paranoid thrillers.
You don't have to have a mental disorder to be a great author, but those lightning leaps of imagination and hours spent constructing fascinating stories, multi-layered in meaning and unique in style, can sometimes be linked to mental illness.