Geeky bumbler charts the lure of delusions
Otherwise, there are parents passing off their children as “psychic sages”. There is a brush with the imbecilic rap duo Insane Clown Posse, who reveal that all that time they were singing violent, misogynistic songs, they were actually – yes! – evangelicals. We meet the broadcaster Ray Gosling, an early idol of Ronson’s, who falsely confessed to the mercy killing of his lover, and Richard Bandler, who calls himself “a little sociopathic” (as a youngster he electrocuted his stepfather; as an adult he taught a 10-year-old boy how to be a sniper) and who is now making millions peddling “neurolinguistic programming”.
In a great piece on the seedier realities of the early days of British pop, we spend time with the songwriter and producer Jonathan King, convicted of sexually assaulting teenage boys. In another, we learn about the Jesus Christians, also known as the “kidney cult” because its members donated kidneys to total strangers.
Among the crowd, there are a couple of geniuses. The piece on Stanley Kubrick sees Ronson combing through the late director’s maniacally archived life in his Childwick Green mansion. My favourite character in Lost at Sea is Martine Rothblatt, who started satellite radio and was also the driving force behind the development of a treatment for the once-fatal lung disorder pulmonary hypertension. (The spur was her six-year-old’s diagnosis; the doctor said the girl would be dead by the age of 10). Martine, formerly a man named Martin, has been married to Bina Aspen since 1982, and the two are now engaged in a project to upload Bina’s memories, thoughts, desires and facial expressions to a robot called Bina48. Ronson interviews both Martine and Bina48.
“What does electricity taste like?” I ask.
“Like a planet around a star,” Bina48 replies.
Which is either extraordinary or meaningless – I’m not sure which.
When Ronson falters, he’s either straining too hard for laughs, as when he retraces a jaunt from a Bond novel, or hanging a story on a gimmick that produces results too anecdotal to shed any real light, as in his look at income disparity. Or it’s because a desire to keep things light seems, in a couple of cases, misguided.
But, all in all, Lost at Sea is fairly addictive stuff. When Ronson is in full investigative and creative flight, he renders credit-card debt compelling. And no one is more aware than he of the “poisoned chalice”that some of these stories represent, and of how journalism like his is helping to make the fringe fringier. “Ray spent a lifetime beautifully documenting life’s ordinariness, but then a generation of documentary-makers like me came along for whom ordinariness wasn’t enough. We wanted to document life’s extremes, and so his gentleness became passé and he unravelled into chaos. And now I’ve come along to document it.”