I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams
by Mark Dery. Foreword by Bruce Sterling
University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN, 2012
304 pages, 15 b&w photos. Trade, $24.95 US
Reviewed by Mike Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University
I've been a fan of Mark Dery for 20 or so years, ever since he quoted something I said on the WELL's forum on teledildonics (computer-mediated sex) in his book Escape Velocity. Dery cordially requested permission to do so—back when civility was expected, or certainly valued, in all online discourse—and then, after publication, invited all his correspondents in the region to gather and drink together when he hit San Francisco on his ensuing book tour.
This essential, but sweetly old-fashioned, gentlemanly courtesy in an age of disembodied electronic communication occupied Mark Dery. He had earlier edited an anthology Flame Wars, which contained Julian Dibbell's provocative "A Rape in Cyberspace" report on significant abuse in a role-playing game. After Escape Velocity, Dery went on to assemble an entertaining collection The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, a title first given to Coney Island amusement parks, freshly bedecked with electric lights, at the beginning of the 20th century.
And he's given us another fine and thoughtful dime museum, each essay as engaging a dog-faced boy. The very conceit behind "(Face)Book of the Dead" recalled Norman Mailer's portentous declaration (made at the time Mailer and Rip Torn were filming Mailer's odd movie "Maidstone") that the similarity between film and death was worthy of further exploration. Dery is often evocative of Mailer's best essays, shaking and chewing on a topic like a dog while succulent fatty insights dribble out.
Like Mailer, the author (and reader) has much fun kicking around issues of masculinity, whether the dubious sexuality of the Super Bowl, of George W. Bush, eccentric specialized porn sites, Madonna's toe in a sexy Versace advertisement, or the disembodied robot voices of the spaceship's computer Hal in "2001: A Space Odyssey" or car in "Knight Rider". As if dressing for the disco—don we now our gay apparel—Dery puts on his most purple prose for these topics, for good effect.
There's much of the grand old tradition of Tom Wolfe's shimmering surface of asides, cultural citations, winks and facial expressions coming through the page.
A piece on Lady Gaga (a personage in several of my students' paintings this past Spring semester) is like a prolegomena for one that soon follows, on David Bowie as the representative of the 1970s. Dery re-iterated this appreciation of Bowie as herald of his decade in a radio interview with leftist economist Doug Henwood.
He offers nothing really new on guns, but cites Sontag's "Fascinating Fascism" (the original version that discussed a book of Nazi regalia as well as Leni Riefenstahl), soon jumping from the Kiss Army to Stephen Sondheim, to finally glimpse through the lens of Debord's Society of the Spectacle. In "Shoah Biz", he tackles the issue of Holocaust commemoration, a dangerous third rail of a topic that nearly destroyed the editorial group of the long-running online publication Bad Subjects seven years ago. In this essay I was taken a bit aback when one Auschwitz visitor was described as "hawk-nosed"; is this a Streicher-era stereotype, or an appropriate evocation of a proud raptor?
A visit to the Vatican reminds him of the church's influence upon a vital strain of goth novelists, from DeSade to Anne Rice. He compares martyred Saint Lucy and Saint Agnes, their eyes and breasts held up, respectively, before the faithful on plates, to truckstop waitresses serving the day's special. His rich imagery puts him in the company of the "splenetic contrarian" Camille Paglia, who also regrets the Church's modernization, while also condemning the Church's strictures on birth control for its cost in human misery, including the spread of AIDS. One of his choicest political pieces recognizes zombies as a metaphor for organized labor in our time. He's also not afraid to confront race, calling out American insults to its black and brown populace; I'd like to see Dery on a panel with Ishmael Reed or bell hooks some day.
As we, in our instantaneous age, are faced with the inevitable problem of book production, some of these pieces feel a bit dated. The oldest is from 16 years ago, and several are from before 2000. Perhaps Dery should be collected between covers three times each decade. What he writes hasn't really been superseded by subsequent events and new info, but I somehow fear that after the financial crash ongoing since 2008, and the "global weirding" tipping point of unnatural weather everywhere, that everything has changed so much that 2000-ish perspectives of any kind are suspect. Maybe my awareness of tempus fugit is further colored by reliving the enjoyment I felt reading Dery in the 1990s.
The book's last few essays are thematically grouped around medical concerns and mortality, with light belle-lettristic travel writing on eccentric nihilists, the skeletally-decorated Crypt of the Capuchins in Rome, finely crafted Italian medical models with beautiful faces, and multiple meditations upon the Mutter Museum's replica of a Chinese criminal's severed head. I too am a fan of medical libraries, since a college bout of research long ago, a purely intellectual interest in the topic of, uh, social diseases, found me also discovering huge, hand-colored nineteenth-century photographic atlases of skin diseases. The book wraps up musing upon identity and the mind, Dery's thoughts about his intellectually-encouraged upbringing decades ago blossoming sunnily like azaleas during an afternoon spent with his mother, deep in her own isolating Alzheimer's disease. I hope he didn't slip the relic beneath his sport coat while departing the Capuchins' Crypt, but I closed the book suspecting Mark Dery is, beneath the effervescence and urbane disposition, the kind of medieval thinker-commentator who keeps a skull upon his desk.