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Book Review: How to Become A Scandal by Laura Kipnis

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In How to Become a Scandal author Laura Kipnis proposes the study of scandal as a new line of social enquiry. So-called bad behavior has always been, but, according to Kipnis, few have studied it. She proceeds to do so, while also gleefully admitting to a love of all things salacious and untoward,

“Please note that I speak as a scandal fan myself. I confess, I love these stories … the detritus of other people’s lives, the quirky plot twists and emotional carnage … Who doesn’t love them — as long as you’re not the one stuck explaining to your spouse why you won’t be going to work the next day and federal marshals are in the den seizing the home computer.”

As much as I applaud her for admitting up-front that she enjoys her subject and is not taking a faux-clinical stance, I’m not sure she should assume that everyone is as scandal-hungry as she. Of the four major scandals she has chosen to focus on in her book, I was only familiar with the last two, which were unavoidable on a nationwide news cast.

Not everyone seeks out scandal, and Kipnis leaves Hollywood out of her sights, which most people would be more prone to equate with the word “scandal” in the first place. I’m not sure that is such a great strategy, as one of her main premises is that people seek out their own punishment. Surely she could have found one example of a starlet on the road to ruin that would have served her narrative and pulled in more readers. As she outlines,

“Someone decides to act out his weird psychodramas and tangled furtive longings on a nationwide scale, playing out his deepest, most lurid impulses, flamboyantly detonating his life — it’s like free public theater.”

She has missed an opportunity to give some scandals an extended run.

Kipnis is an compelling writer with a good turn of phrase, and How to Become a Scandal moves along at an entertaining clip. But it seems that once Kipnis brings up these past naughty bits she is loath to really indulge in them, just giving brief, businesslike descriptions. In a book about scandal one would expect more revelation, more dirt. A little more of a water-cooler whisper session vibe.

The four scandals Kipnis chose are:

“The Lovelorn Astronaut”:  Jilted astronaut Lisa Nowak drove non-stop, across country, maybe wearing disposable diapers (that’s the scandalous part), to enact something whether it was revenge or humiliation or something more sinister is not really clear, on other woman Colleen Shipman, in her love triangle with fellow astronaut William Ofelein.

“An Unreasonable Judge”:  In another love triangle of sorts, New York’s chief justice Sol Wachtler stalks ex-lover Joy Silverman, utilizing threats, disguises, extortion and other bizarre behavior.

“The Whistle-Blower”:  Kipnis focuses on Linda Tripp and her betrayal of Monica Lewinsky’s friendship in the Clinton sex scandal.

“An Over-imaginative Writer”:  Author James Frey’s memoir and its exposure as part-fiction on Oprah Winfrey’s television show come under scrutiny.

Of the four stories, as scandalous as they must have been (and may still be) to the participants and their families, the first two fall into the rather typical woman scorned or lover spurned category. Kipnis has a lot more interesting meat to deal with in the last two scandals, and I wish she had expanded those sections and maybe found other more nation-shocking scandals, even further back in history if necessary, to compare and contrast. Kipnis writes, “When I hear the word ‘scandal’ I want shattered lives, downfall, disgrace, and ruin, the rage of the community …” That doesn’t really fit the bill in either Nowak’s or Wachtler’s stories.

Whereas the impeachment of a president after an affair with an intern does cause rage in the community. Politicians are no strangers to extracurricular activity, but Clinton and Lewinsky were part of an elaborate sting operation, which does feed into Kipnis’ theory of people wanting to bring down their fellows. They both acted as if they would not get caught, the president thinking his behavior was beyond reach, and Monica thinking she could trust a girlfriend to keep a confidence. There is definitely self-destruction in both of their deluded viewpoints, as Kipnis writes,

“Scandals aren’t just fiascoes other people get themselves embroiled in while the rest of us go innocently about our business … scandalizers screw things up in showy, provocative ways and the rest of us throw stones, luxuriating in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people’s life-destroying stupidities invariably provide.”

But Kipnis doesn’t want to analyze this scandal, so she keeps veering off from main players Clinton and Lewinsky and instead focuses on the phone call taping, wire-wearing, duplicitous Linda Tripp. She posits that Linda Tripp’s appearance wasn’t just a cruel comic sidebar, but the root of her desire to bring down some cheater, any cheater  and she hit the big time when Monica started blabbing about her relationship.

Kipnis quotes George Orwell, “‘… by age fifty everyone has the face he deserves,’” and goes on to say,

“Linda Tripp’s face…became an instant icon, a defining negative moment in American visual culture. By common consensus, it was ugly … There was tacit agreement that two decades of feminist language reforms notwithstanding, the word ugly could be applied with impunity and that the country’s collective dispute with Tripp’s brand of friendship could be expressed through jokes about her face.”

Kipnis hints at the possibility that ugly is as ugly does, but what she doesn’t seem to realize as she is writing about Tripp is that her own focus on Tripp’s looks is an essentially female and certainly not feminist, position to take. Late night male talk show hosts may have all called Tripp ugly, but they didn’t obsess about it. Does Kipnis really think that Tripp’s looks caused President Clinton to be impeached? It seems that for Kipnis’s argument the opposing political forces at work were not as formidable as Tripp’s outrageous hairdo and facial expressions.

In her final scandal analysis, Kipnis writes about the author James Frey, whose blockbuster debut, A Million Little Pieces was initially heralded by Oprah Winfrey, and through her Oprah’s Book Club, catapulted to huge success. But when The Smoking Gun began to investigate Frey and determined that his book was less fact than fiction, Oprah came down as hard on him as she had originally praised him, this time demonizing the author and focusing on herself and her betrayal at his hands.

Kipnis quotes George Bernard Shaw, “All autobiographies are lies.” and comes down firmly on Frey’s side, stressing that the public is just fooling themselves to take all confessionals and memoirs as verbatim. She begins an interesting argument, but gets sidetracked by Oprah’s weight issues rather than calling the television host on her need to raise and then vilify James Frey. Oprah’s reaction to Frey was the most perfect example of Kipnis’s initial definition of why she believes people love scandal that we secretly want to screw up and be punished, and also that we need and want to punish others for their screw-ups. But Kipnis seems reluctant to completely point the spotlight on such a powerful person as Oprah, which ultimately dilutes the book and its ending.

Kipnis also avoids any discussion of herself. She quotes Sigmund Freud, who spent his life listening to and interpreting other’s secrets, “No mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.”

I didn’t necessarily require the author to unburden herself of some past indiscretion, but she also doesn’t give a “we’ve all been there” nod to her own vulnerability. How to Become a Scandal rollicks along easily enough on Kipnis’s engaging prose, but it feels a little lost, not sure whether to try to titillate or keep a more respectful tone. And respect is the death of scandal.

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  • http://judefolly.com jude folly

    how to become a scandal? if you have to ask then you’ll never know!