Date finished: November 4th 2016
Jon Ronson is the writer equivalent of Louis Theroux – they’re both somewhat socially-awkward, sarcastic Brits who like to shed light on the fringes of American society. They’re as entertaining, probing and fascinating as one another, and it’s always a joy to read a Ronson, just as I always anticipate the next Theroux documentary.
I never got round to reading The Men Who Stare At Goats, arguably Ronson’s most famous work. I saw the film before I starting reading Ronson and it was… well strange, and it was okay, but I didn’t want to read a book along the same lines. Of course, a book by Ronson would be nothing like a film based on it; narrative, plot and coherence fall by the wayside as various leads take Ronson down the rabbit warrens of society’s madnesses, and this book is no different to his others in that respect.
The Men Who Stare At Goats follows Ronson’s investigations into the American military’s experiments in New Age, psychic and generally unconventional forms of research, and the wider impact of these strange ideas. Along the way we meet a General who can’t walk through walls, the Lieutenant Colonel who took a year out to drive around California trying out New Age therapies and spiritualistic techniques in order to come up with new methods of warfare, the man who dedicated his life to finding out the sinister reason his father fell out a window on LSD, and, of course, some men who stare at goats.
More broadly, he ends up looking at how the eccentric characters he meets and the increasingly-mad ideologies have impacted America home and abroad: relating to everything from 9/11 to Heaven’s Gate, to the guy who writes the jingles for Sesame Street. It’s effortlessly readable and thoroughly entertaining, but at times the connections between the events are so loose as to be more like Six Degrees of Separation than a coherent narrative about mysticism in the US Intelligence Services. If you’re of a conspiratorial enough mindset you could probably create some overarching narrative, but in reality it’s more a series of vignettes of varying inter-relatedness about insanity in the American military: from Matchbox Twenty as a torture technique, to MK-ULTRA’s sinister cousin, The Men Who Stare At Goats is a chilling and entertaining insight into the absurdity of the American intelligence services.
The important thing, however, is, like all Ronson books, this one is entertaining, gripping and fascinating, if a bit nuts. There are a lot of important investigations and revelations in this work. Staring at goats isn’t all that big a part of the narrative, and it’s all the better for that. It may not be as good as some of his other works like The Psychopath Test, or So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, but it’s full of the same frenetic investigation, enthusiastic reporting and awkward humour that ensure I’ll always keep coming back to Jon Ronson.