The grip of the celebrity-defamation vortex on our society is a little scary and hugely fascinating. Did you hear 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." She 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 how our bottomless appetite for disgraced public figures shapes society, but to provide an almost academic "theory of scandal."
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." She recounts the tales of Lisa Nowak, the NASA astronaut who drove through the night — supposedly wearing a diaper — to confront her romantic rival; 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 is Sol Wachtler, a married New York state chief justice who brought his career to a spectacular halt by masquerading as a series of characters 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 them to avoid catastrophes long since passed. For all their delusion, Kipnis makes clear that these were people who did what they somehow thought they had to do. The book is most effective as a collection of well-told parables, but in the end fails to offer any illuminating new revelations about a world habitually riveted by the humiliation of others.