A review of I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams

I wrote the following as a review that will, it seems, never appear anywhere else. I find it hard to believe that it can be so difficult to place a review, but there you are. I won’t get into the specifics, but some journals suck. Anyway, here is the review. (Note: Minnesota provided me with a gratis copy of the book, but my understanding of that provision was that it was not contingent on an actual review. I wrote the review because I enjoyed the book and wanted to discuss it.)

by Mark Dery
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2012
336 pp. 15 b/w illus. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8166-7773-3.

We sense Mark Dery’s presence throughout I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, but it’s in “Cortex Envy,” the collection’s final essay, that his subjectivity is clearest. Earlier in the book, we glimpse Dery as a former high school classmate or cultural tourist, but mainly he remains there an invisible, contemporary Virgil, showing us what lies beneath and behind the façade of Disneyfied Americana that precludes our acknowledgement of this beneath and behind.

Dery frames this final essay with a discussion of his submission to an adult IQ test, an ordeal he undergoes partly because he wants “to banish the spectre of unfulfilled promise” he feels as his parents’ legacy to him and “partly because guinea-pigging yourself makes for good stunt journalism” (p. 268). Despite the fact that the essays that comprise I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts are, rather than journalism, essays, this late moment is crucial for understanding Dery’s predicament: writing within and for a culture whose shifts, despite arriving faster each day, possess, to we the affectless, less and less consequence.

Dery tells us that the Verbal Comprehension subtests (on which he scores high) of this IQ test include a quiz on cultural literacy. Dery demonstrates his own cultural literacy throughout the book. It’s best moments are often those in which he cuts to the heart of the matter with an erudite one-liner whose resonances exist in gross disproportion to the number of words he uses to create them. Early in the text he approvingly notes how Camille Paglia “comes to any firefight with a speedloader full of zingers,” (p. 30) before dispensing his own. He describes Lady Gaga as looking “permanently agog, like Paris Hilton after a ministroke” (p. 36); Imus as “Rooster Cogburn reading The Turner Diaries” (p. 57); self-help guru Anthony Robbins as “Saturday Night Live’s ‘Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer’ reading from Mark Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe” (p. 170); and the all-too-real Church of Euthanasia as “God’s revenge on Operation Rescue, in a universe ruled by Abbie Hoffman” (p. 241). No doubt anyone who might read Mark Dery possesses the cultural literacy to understand the what of many of these references, but how many, through no fault of their own, grasp their depth? Moreover, what of the people who don’t even grasp the what as yet?

Perhaps most importantly we might ask if these zingers in fact teach us anything or if, rather, we simply wish that they could. After all, doesn’t Paris Hilton already look like Paris Hilton after a ministroke? Does Lady Gaga add anything here?

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is not simply a set of zingers, nor are these zingers the most important aspects of the book. The book is, however, something of a throwback to a style of writing, the essay—as practised by a Twain, Mencken, or Sontag—that seems increasingly less relevant today for the fact that cultural literacy, while still very much alive, can no longer be understood as something centralized or common (if it ever was). We have the meme, the viral video, etc., but these things are so many, so ephemeral, and so difficult to simply discover (there are lots of sites on the Internet, after all), that no two people are likely to have knowledge of the same ones even within a relatively narrow American context.

And in the face of this shift, Dery gives us the essay, a form of writing that came into its own alongside our modern conception of the human subject and all the centrality it entails. A Bacon or a Montaigne might welcome these essays as essays (even as they remain perplexed—try explaining the humorous aspects of fascism, or simply fascism, to the author of The New Atlantis). At the same time these are new (drive-by) essays for a new age. They are occasional, yes, but not in the manner we might expect. Dery rarely references 9/11 or our reactions to it, nor does he spend much time on the evangelical right. They’re there, but to Dery they are either obvious in what they tell us about American magic and dread or they are not what’s important. Through these personal essays—personal in that their subject matter is what caught Dery’s eye and are, therefore, what he can best read for us—Dery shows us the consequence of the apparently small and therefore truly hidden. In that, his cultural literacy remains valuable, especially to a culture in which literacy itself, once a standard of education, has become so varied.

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