Laura Kipnis's "How to Become a Scandal," reviewed by Ellen McCarthy

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By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2010

HOW TO BECOME A SCANDAL

Adventures in Bad Behavior

By Laura Kipnis

Metropolitan. 209 pp. $24

In a recent blog post, Robert Wright, author of "The Evolution of God," tells of his return from a weeklong silent meditation retreat. He came back to the working world centered, mindful and teeming with goodwill toward all. Then he turned on his computer, saw a headline about Paris Hilton's cocaine bust and froze. It was a debased desire luring him to wallow in her misery, he knew, and so Wright resisted -- until he saw the word "video."

He clicked. How could he not?

Scandal-watching has become our most vibrant national pastime. Whole industries have grown up in the past decade to help us create, document and dissect the transgressions of the possibly rich and quasi-famous. While the rest of the magazine world has struggled, US Weekly and its ilk have flourished, elevating relative unknowns -- hey, Kardashians! -- to their cover spreads on the rare occasions when our real stars were being tediously well-behaved.

The grip of this celebrity-defamation vortex on Wright and the rest of society is a little scary and hugely fascinating. Did you hear that Snooki got locked up for drunkenly annoying people at the beach? Of course you did. Now: Can you explain why any of us care?

That's not, unfortunately, something Laura Kipnis sheds much light on in her new book, "How to Become a Scandal." Kipnis dismisses the type of flaps that make TMZ and Access Hollywood spin as "insipid, mass-produced, mind-numbing product." The author is more demanding in her definition of scandal: "I want shattered lives, downfall, disgrace and ruin, the rage of the community directed at its transgressors." She seeks not to explore the way our bottomless appetite for disgraced public figures is shaping society, but to provide an almost-academic "theory of scandal." It is, as she sees it, intellectually "virgin terrain."

To guide her inquiry, Kipnis, a cultural critic and professor at Northwestern University best known for her 2003 book, "Against Love: A Polemic," uses the stories of four "scandal protagonists" that particularly captured her interest. She recounts the tales of Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who drove through the night -- supposedly wearing a diaper to avoid potty breaks -- to confront her romantic rival with a can of pepper spray; Linda Tripp, arguably the most vilified character of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair; and James Frey, an author who pulled the wool over Oprah's eyes with a riveting account of addiction recovery that turned out to be as much fiction as fact. Least notorious today is Sol Wachtler, a married New York state chief justice who brought his career to a spectacular halt by masquerading as a series of elaborate characters, including a seedy detective, to threaten his socialite ex-girlfriend.

Kipnis expertly rebuilds the tension of each case, unraveling the details of her subjects' downfalls so methodically that I held my breath, willing these people to avoid catastrophes that have long since passed. And she treats her subjects with great humanity and an empathetic there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I reverence. Kipnis knows that, for all of us, the edge is a little too close for comfort. She traces the psychological undoing of her chosen protagonists using police records, news reports and after-the-fact explanations from the subjects themselves. For all their delusion, Kipnis makes clear that these were people who did what they somehow thought they had to do.

A teasing highlight of the book comes in a parenthetical aside, when Kipnis notes that psychologists have found that schadenfreude is always most potent in "areas of what they call 'self-relevance.' " We delight in others' misfortune most blithely when it could've happened to us? Wow. I wish there'd been more on that.

In one of several distracting decisions, Kipnis opens with a lengthy anecdote of a married, sanctimonious governor caught with a high-priced hooker. Page 5 even has a picture of Eliot Spitzer, yet the author never uses his name. Is she protecting him while making pointed examples of the others? Later the book bogs down in philosophical discussions about the nature of ugliness and a dissection of misleading facial expressions. (This is in the Linda Tripp chapter.) The book is most effective as a collection of well-told parables, but in the end fails to offer any illuminating revelations about a world habitually riveted by the humiliation of others.

So, a confession: I almost always choose the longest supermarket line. More time to check out what other people have in their baskets and to make my way through this week's People magazine (which I don't buy, just devour from cover to cover).

Maybe soon Kipnis or someone else will tell me and Robert Wright -- and the rest of America -- about the spell that we're under.

Ellen McCarthy is a writer in The Washington Post's Style section.


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