Adventures in Bad Behavior
By Laura Kipnis
All Posts Contain Spoilers
I love mean people.
I mention that only because I try, before I talk about a book, to give all relevant disclaimers, to announce any prejudices which may skew my otherwise pristine critical faculties. And, before I discuss ‘How to Become a Scandal‘, I need to disclaim: I love mean people. I am predisposed to enjoy them, to enjoy the things that they say, especially if they are mean AND funny.
Laura Kipnis is mean. And Laura Kipnis is funny. Laura Kipnis is mean AND funny.
‘How to Become a Scandal‘ is an ontology of modern American scandals. Kipnis discusses only four scandals, but she discusses them in depth: Lisa Nowak, the jilted astronaut who drove through the night to pepper spray the woman for whom her boyfriend left her; Sol Wachtler, the appellate judge who created several fake identities in order to harass and extort the woman with whom he’d had an extramarital affair; Linda Tripp, the “friend” who secretly taped Monika Lewinsky talking about her affair with Bill Clinton; and James Frey, the “memoirist” who was found to have fabricated many of the most interesting details of his book, ‘A Million Little Pieces’.
Kipnis reviews these scandals, reminding (or educating us) about the most important details of the cases, but she’s really interested in understanding them: why did these people behave in such outrageous and self-destructive ways? How do they understand their own actions? And why, in a world full of bad actors, do we find ourselves outraged only by some? What allows some bad behavior to fly under the radar while some catches fire in our imagination and becomes a scandal? And are we wicked to enjoy it?
I think I can admit that I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ thoroughly. It feels like an admission because Kipnis is prurient and salacious and, well, mean: she loves scandals, all the grubby little details which we are supposed to pretend aren’t interesting to us. She cops to participating in the worst of our cultural rubbernecking, of gloating about the misfortunes of others, of reveling in the sick and sexy revelations which so often accompany these tempests. As I began the book, I was worried that I was basically going to be reading a gossip column dressed up in a little cultural analysis.
I gave Kipnis too little credit. First of all, she’s smart. She’s really quite smart, actually, and her analysis is motivated by a genuine desire to understand. Her gaze is unflinching, and she spares no one, not even herself: she is much more interested in what scandals say about the people who follow them than about the people who cause them.
And I think her analysis is fruitful: I learned things from this book, not facts, but new ways of thinking about my culture, about its winners and its losers. She has altered my perspective, slightly perhaps, but I am old and jaded, and it takes a lot to move my needle even a little.
“Yes, I understand these people have done bad things, injured those who love them and torpedoed their lives in lavishly stupid ways, but clearly such impulses aren’t their problem alone. It’s the universal ailment if, as appears to be the case, beneath the thin camouflage of social niceties lies a raging maelstrom, some unspeakable inner bedlam. Scandals are like an anti-civics lesson – there to remind us of that smidge of ungovernability lodged deep at the human core which periodically breaks loose and throws everything into havoc, leading to grisly forms of ritual humiliation and social ignominy…” (p. 6)
She’s actually a pretty good writer, too. She manages to parse some pretty subtle social theory, and be funny while doing it, which is not an easy feat. And while her colloquialisms grate a little, and her prose tends towards the frenetic, she manages to be readable without sacrificing IQ points, which is a rare quality in a popular writer.
“We know the sentiments are mass produced, we also know the emotions we need to sustain us can’t be packaged, yet with the Oprahfication of the culture, triteness is our fate: it saturates the culture and our lives. What’s at issue isn’t the market or mass media, neither of which appear to be going away any time soon, it’s the flattening out of experience and the vacancies it leaves all of us to manage, each in our own improvised ways. If every scandal exposes underlying social contradictions, the commerce in selfhood is the subtext of this one. The question we’d want to ask is whether her talent at monetizing authenticity really gives Oprah the moral high ground over James Frey.” (p. 189)
Or how about this excerpt, which is so sharp that everyone gets cut in it:
“Poor Linda [Tripp], so perilously poised at the intersection of two indelible forms of social failure. Guilty of terribly betraying a friend, an egregious act in a culture that reviles a stool pigeon as the lowest of the low, and lacking the requisite allure in the visual department, she was the bearer of two varieties of social disgrace, each refracted through the magnifying lens of the other. No doubt the combination licensed the barely repressed violence of the jokes, the quality of atavistic aggression, every punch line like a hard right cross to the kisser. Though you couldn’t help noting that physical attractiveness on the part of the tellers of ugliness jokes was not a prerequisite, which is curious in itself: did the jokesters think they were granted an exception from their own aesthetic standards by virtue of Tripp’s moral failures, or were somehow inoculated from similar judgements by the power of their jokes?” (p. 131)
The above quote also illustrates the other thing, mentioned previous, which I really loved about Kipnis: her meanness.
That might sound weird, but I believe that I can defend meanness. The truth is, there are some topics that we cannot discuss without it. I am not advocating for gratuitous or sadistic meanness, for the taking of genuine pleasure in the suffering of another. I am advocating for the willingness to say, to speak aloud, truths or conclusions about our fellow men which would wound them if they were heard, which we would not normally utter in polite conversation, which we would not say to our friends. It is impossible to explain ugly things without speaking ugly truths, and as long as there are ugly things in the world, meanness will be a necessity of understanding.
The case of Linda Tripp is a perfect case in point: Kipnis makes a persuasive argument that the public outcry about Linda Tripp, the reaction to her, her scandal, cannot be understood without also acknowledging her personal ugliness. That the nation recoiled in disgust at what they perceived as a creature without redeeming characteristics, either moral or aesthetic. She is not justifying that reaction – she is chronicling it. But, if scandal is the phenomenon of public outrage, and the public is outraged by ugly women (and there are mountains and mountains of rather soul-shriveling evidence that they are), then any discussion of the public’s reaction to Linda Tripp which pussy-foots around her ugliness is disingenuous at best.
I think, at the end of the day, that is why I enjoyed ‘How to Become a Scandal‘ so much, why I will almost certainly now read her other books: because she is brave. She’s smart, and mean, and funny, yeah, but she uses those qualities in the service of her goal, which is to understand something ugly about us. And I always believe that looking ugliness in the eye is a valid goal.
And, at least in my case, she achieved that goal. I admire books which are sneaky about their smarts, books which you think are going to salacious and gossipy, but which actually make you wiser before you even notice it’s happening. Laura Kipnis has hidden her acuity well – the dust jacket of her book is hot pink, for heaven’s sake! But it’s there, deep and sharp. And I believe that it takes a mean, sharp analysis to understand what it is mean and sharp in us, to understand things like our bloodlust, our endless capacity to enjoy seeing each other brought low. I think it needed someone like Kipnis to understand something like scandal. And I loved it.