Familiar alien anthropology expeditions
I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams, Mark Dery, University of Minnesota Press 2012
I moved to the USA from Scotland having grown up, like everybody else everywhere else, watching American movies and television, reading the country’s books, and listening to its sonic output. When I arrived in Chicago I realised even more than before that, of course, the view I had gotten of the country was a very flat and deceiving and refracted one, American Dream entertainment propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl waxing lyrical about Disneyland, so I set about reading books about the country to try and understand, in part, just what the living hell I had gotten myself into.
This is, of course, somewhat fatuous, like reading a book about sex to learn about it instead of just diving and (and out and in and…) practicing. Of course, I learned a lot American life by simply living it. But my random-trajectory readings, about the multitude of subjects (religion, guns, insane money obsession, ad infinitum) so different from my old home country that caught my eye and mind at any given time, did bear some stimulating cogitation-fruit. It was in this spirit I got Mark Dery’s new book of collected essays, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. I had read some of the writer’s work on J.G. Ballard (a huge inspiration to me) and was interested to read Dery’s new collection because his approach to things sounded somewhat the same as mine: just research what obsesses you (a familiar Ballardian trope) and (de)form your thoughts accordingly.
Mark Dery is a forward-thinking-and-looking writer who puts many of the more insane aspects of contemporary life under a magnifying glass and dissects them with fearsome insight and intellect. As befits a modern splintered age of no common morality or life-threads or belief systems, he approaches his subjects with a pathology-anthropologist’s eye and holds up some of the darker areas of life to wriggle complaining under the concise blinding light of his deep-dish musings and extrapolations about their (im)possible meanings and potential future directions. As noted science fiction writer Bruce Sterling sagely notes in his introduction, Dery “brandishes a Diogenes lantern as the smoke thickens on every side” and these “Google erudition” pieces that comprise the book (ranging from 1996-2011) read “like the contents of bottles pitched into the sea.”
And what of the contents of these electronic-disinformation-sea-bobbing vessels? Well, if bemused and fascinating musings on subjects as diverse as the homoeroticism of George W. Bush, how Lady Gaga stands up in comparison to previous gender-and-agenda-bender bi-curious rockers, current zombie apocalypse obsession, Dadaist spam poetry, the homosexuality quotient of the tiresome Super Bowl (Dery does not shy away from any sexual matter, straight or not), Mayan apocalypse cultists, fundamentalist religion pamphleteers, the suicide note as a literary subgenre, the fascist-identifying proclivities of Prince Harry, and on and on (you get the general hyper-eclectic-discussions gist) interest you, then you will absolutely love this book. With a spunky, funky sensibility informed in parts by the late 70s American punk of his youth, alternative literature (a somewhat redundant term, but you know what I mean by it, I hope – stuff like Naked Lunch as such) and an endlessly inquiring mind, Dery gleefully picks up a great many taboo-subject rocks, shows us what’s squirming sightless unseen underneath them, then crushes the stupidity of the more deserving targets to death with the selfsame stone.
On a technical level, Dery is an excellent writer, approaching his subject matter with a wry, sometimes uproarious spiketop sense of humor which helps to leaven some of his more serious discussions. He is great with puns as well (loved his calling Prince Harry an “anus miserabilis,” echoing and twisting the Queen’s whining a few years back about her annus miserabilis), kind of red-top-cum-intellectual, and article titles like ‘Toe Fou’ (an obvious play on ‘tofu’ in a chapter about foot fetishism, which also translates as being ‘mad about toes’ in mixed French and English) and ‘The Vast Santanic Conspiracy’ (heading an eyebrow-raising brilliant piece about the supposed connections between Santa and Satan) and ‘The Triumph of the Shill’ add an entertaining note to the proceedings.
As I said earlier, Dery does tend to dwell a lot on the darker side of life, which can make for uncomfortable and somewhat frightening, if enlightening, reading. It strikes me there’s a slightly schoolboy prurience (back to punk and nihilism again) to the glee-degree with which he jumps into some of humanity’s bleakest corners, but his reports back on the long dark night of our ever-evaporating soul are always done with a judicious amount of redeeming humanity, a lack of identification with the insane, and a sense of genuine human curiosity and inquiry. He does not fetishise stuff like the sickest corners of the net’s sexual representation, he just says here’s what I found and saw during examining this semen-and-vaginal-mucus-and-shit-smeared crash on the information superhighway, here’s what I made of it, nothing hugely interesting to see here, move along, move along.
The voice of the writer’s clear intellectual idol, J.G. Ballard, haunts the pages of this collection like Banquo at the feast of the death of 20th century morality and logic and sanity. With these pieces being written over a period of 15 years, you have to wonder if Dery himself is aware how many times the now-deceased English writer is mentioned; seemingly in every other article some Ballardian apothegm or trope rears its consciousness-razing-and-raising head. This is no bad thing, though, because if there is any writer who constantly looked to understand the modern humanimal until his death, it was the Seer of Shepperton. I only recognised the clear-eyed thought-stamp here because I have been so influenced by Ballard myself in the past.
What was also amusing and interesting to me was the obvious hand of Lester Bangs in shaping some of the music pieces because, well, he’s another of my favorite writers. Extreme intellect and vital muscular musical prose; what more do you want when you obviously have these streaks in you and are learning your punky piercing penetrating madness-rating-and-berating word-trade? But ultimately, Dery is nobody else’s muse-bitch. His thoughts and theories are his own, hewn of his own unflinching obsessions and desires and intellect and communication attempts, a desire to try and construct some sort of sane and reasoned life-plan in an ever-more-insane world where reason is treason and ignorance is blooming in perpetual season. The mention of these being ‘drive-by’ essays in the book’s subtitle is instructive. It can be taken in the sense of just doing a casual causal brief report on a subject…or driving by some piece of ridiculous anti-intellectual hatefueled garbage and spraying it with intellectual tracer bullets to wipe it out completely. Beware the ides of the march of the idiots. And any writer like the excellent one here is doing us a valuable service in trying to slow down or destroy that march. Despite the incalculably long odds of any long-term widespread success, you can’t fault him for trying.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 2nd, 2012.