The Female of the Species is More Deadlier Than the Male

I know I just said that I'm not hard on fiction. I guess what I mean, is that it takes a lot for me to call something a "bad book" or to say that I've wasted my time reading a novel. I finish almost everything I start, and there have been only two exceptions in the past couple years. However, most of the things I'm about to say about Snowdrops are complaints. It's nominated for the Booker, so I don't have to be rhapsodic about its merits, of which there are many. It's a caper book, that's made clear from the start. There is a sense of fun when speeding through, knowing there's a scam, wondering how it will unfold. Snowdrops has a bit of a pulp thriller feel to it, though written in a more high-minded style, more thoughtful than throwing a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter.

I enjoyed reading Snowdrops while I was reading it, but something nagged at me. About a week after I finished, I finally realised: I am sick of the honey-trap. I'm tired of the nebbishy guy seduced by the "bad" girl. I felt like I'd read Girl Crazy all over again, but set in Russia. Our protagonist, Nick, is a lawyer just moved to Moscow. He's a mediocre sort of fellow, without much in the way of personality, not much success with women, not much of a looker. Nick will be defined by the events around him, pulled along with the flow of cynical Russians, all on the take. Nick does not act, he reacts. Nick wants, but lets others take. Like Russell Smith's protagonist in Girl Crazy, Nick first encounters the conveniently slutty love interest while she's in distress. In this case, he foils a purse snatching. And Masha, after an accelerated courtship, gives him her body (and for extra kink, her “sister” watches). She continues to string Nick along for months, to ensure his help in the caper. (I'm not giving anything away here. Again, this is all foreshadowed in the telling.)
'In Russia,' Steve said, 'there are no business stories. And there are no politics stories. There are no love stories. There are only crime stories.'
Nick falls in love anyway. He thinks of marrying Masha, even though he knows nothing about her, and admits as much to himself in the narrative —constructed as a letter to his now fiancée (like in Girl Crazy there's a dull, dependable girl at the end, to act as foil to the wild girl of yore).
That's what I learned when my last Russian winter thawed. The lesson wasn't about Russia. It never is, I don't think, when a relationship ends. It isn't your lover that you learn about. You learn about yourself.
Caper accomplished, Masha conveniently disappears so that Nick can get onto being whatever it is he's learned to be. He can go back to England having had the Great Adventure, settle down with his predictable boring late-life wife.

One is supposed to separate the work from the writer. I understand that this is crucial in literary critique. But there are seriously unprofessional parts of me that wonder about A.D. Miller (and since I'm not getting paid for this, being unprofessional now and then is probably inevitable). A BBC piece on Miller says: "Miller's own experiences in Russia were 'slightly more uneventful' than those of his fictional creation". It makes me wonder if he wishes that all this had happened to him. If he saw all the strip clubs and easy sex, the women he writes about as desperate to find a non-Russian husband, and wanted so much to have them for himself. Would it have mattered if those women had ripped him off, had hurt him, if he'd gotten to fulfill that Mata Hari dream? In the end, this girl is always a fiction. It feels like Miller is writing a fantasy for himself, a Booker nominated Penthouse Forum letter. “I can’t believe it happened to me. I was working in Russia…” While it is well written, at times clever, Snowdrops winds up existing in sexual cliché territory, and for me that's a bit tired and not the least challenging.

ETA: In the comments, I just proposed the idea that the letter Nick writes to his fiancée is in itself a fiction. That he's the dullest dude ever, and so he makes up this elaborate story to tell his girlfriend, so she'll find him more interesting. And if that's the case, if the book is that self-aware? Then it's fucking brilliant. And I'm willing, totally willing, to believe that's the case, if there's any evidence for it. I'd prefer fiction be good, after all

Whatever You Say I Am

I was saying to a friend, recently, that I'm a lot harder on non-fiction than fiction. Even when I don't wholly enjoy a novel or short-story collection I don't tend to judge it too harshly. I like to talk fiction, move around inside it, make connections. With non-fiction, there's often a thesis in the setup (memoir isn't wholly excluded from this), and that invites critical inquisition of the text, even if the thesis as a whole is solid (see my unhappiness with Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright Sided). That's my theory on how I read, anyway.

The Psychopath Test danced right through all my argumentative tendencies, and stands as a solidly interesting read. Jon Ronson is an extremely talented writer and pure investigator. The Psychopath Test doesn't come from a single thesis, but rather the coalescing of several incidents and interviews that he'd done, which all seemed to make sense together in hindsight. For example, Ronson had interviewed "Tony" in Broadmoor psychiatric hospital for This American Life. Tony was living among serial killers and sex offenders as a consequence of claiming madness to get out of a jail sentence for aggravated assault. The psychiatrists at the time of his sentencing believed the quotes Tony had pulled from violent movies to be his own thoughts, and declared him insane. The NPR interview seemed pretty open and shut when I'd heard it years ago. Stupid kid does something stupid, and follows with stupid plot to Get Out of Jail Free. When he seems sane, the hospital thinks his treatment is working, and says they need to keep him. If he plays insane, he clearly needs to stay as well. Tony is stuck.

The Psychopath Test however, goes a bit further with Tony's story.
Seems Tony's doctors know very well that he faked his way into Broadmoor.
"Tony[...] did get here by faking mental illness because he thought it would be preferable to prison." [...]It was now the consensus. Tony's delusions --the ones he'd presented when he had been on remand in jail-- just, in retrospect, didn't ring true. [...]"Oh!" I thought, pleasantly surprised. "Good! That's great!" I had liked Tony when I met him but found myself feeling warier of him those past days so it was nice to have his story verified by an expert
However, the action of making up those stories in an attempt to escape prison, as well as many other indications have Tony diagnosed as a psychopath, according to the Hare Checklist.
But then I read Professor Maden's next line: "Most psychiatrists who have assessed him, and there have been a lot, have considered he is not mentally ill, but suffers from psychopathy."[...]Faking mental illness to get out of a prison sentence, he explained, is exactly the kind of deceitful and manipulative act you'd expect of a psychopath. Tony faking his brain going wrong was a sign that his brain had gone wrong.

The genesis and applications of the Hare Checklist, named after and created by pioneering psychologist Bob Hare, are ostensibly the main focus of the book. Ronson gives a thorough introduction to the history of the treatment and diagnosis of psychopaths, with pertinent peripheral information about psychiatry/psychology — and its opponents — in general (there's a very interesting chapter on the history of the DSM, which is going into its fifth edition). Ronson then takes the checklist on the road and investigates whether psychopaths are disproportionately represented in the top ranks of corporate executives. The Psychopath Test refuses to have a central thesis, rather Ronson simply and entertainingly reports the facts as he can find them, and the events as they happen. Both Scientologists and psychiatrists are treated with fairness, and neither escape scrutiny. Ronson gives enough of himself, though, to keep the book engaging and avoid being dry recantation of names and dates. This is simply an excellent, well-researched non-partisan look at a specific subset of psychiatric definitions.

When I was in University I took a first-year psychology course as an option. One of the things our professor told us was that we would wind up diagnosing ourselves with all sorts of mental disorders when reading the text book. We were told to ignore this phenomenon (is there a name for it? I never knew), and do our best not to be concerned when we checked off symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, or food related disorders. We were asked to leave naming of our psychoses and neuroses to the professionals. An interesting subtext of The Psychopath Test is how Jon Ronson begins to do just this, as he becomes more knowledgeable. No, he doesn't think he's a psychopath, but he discovers — he thinks — that he's in whatever the exact opposite category is. He's too anxious, too interested in other people, he feels fear more physically*. At the same time, he begins diagnosing random people with psychopathy, after taking one class with Bob Hare. That, if anything, is one of the lingering and more important messages in The Psychopath Test: A little learning is a very dangerous thing.

*It's theorized that psychopaths had a low or non-functioning amygdala. Once Ronson hears about this, he feels his go in to overdrive rather too often.