I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams
(University of Minnesota Press, 2012)
The other day, I walked into my local cafe and encountered a startling sight—a well-dressed man, inching toward 50, rocking back and forth over his cappuccino with an anguished, far-away look on his face. I live in America—Brooklyn to be exact—and while, yes, the economy is lurching along and God’s benighted warriors continue trying to steer us back to the 1600s, we are still Americans and this sort of thing just isn’t done. As I positioned myself at the other end of the long table, I found myself trying to diagnosis the guy (bipolar? schizophrenic?) only to hear him clear his throat and start speaking to the boy across from him—in French.
I immediately relaxed. Behavior that had seemed pathological mere seconds before now appeared well within the range of normal. This was no madman; it was a Frenchman! As cultural critic Mark Dery points out in his searing essay, “Tripe Soup for the Soul,” in the U.S., openly airing one’s misery is tantamount to a public declaration of incompetence. In France, it’s just human.
If there is one impulse animating the wildly discursive essays in Dery’s new collection, I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts, it is a desire to expose exactly this sort of “doubleness” and by doing so reveal the gulf between received truth and actual reality. Whether he’s discussing America’s self-help mania or the artistic authenticity of Lady Gaga versus Queen, the same sentiment prevails: in a world predicated on artifice nothing is ever what it seems, least of all ourselves.
There is a reason this collection is called I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. Dery’s interests are catholic and, like many Catholics, he occasionally veers toward the perverse. Flipping through this book feels a little like perusing late night cable television. You’re just as likely to land on something about the savvy branding techniques of the Nazis as you are to be treated to a lesson in decapitation fetishism or given a tour of the ghoulish Catacombs of the Capuchins. (You will even find a few daily affirmations from the TV’s true king of late night, self-help guru Tony Robbins.) The through line linking this dizzying, and often grisly, array of topics is often implicit, but always present. At every turn, Dery asks the question: In an age defined by the “virtualization of reality” can we preserve our ability to distinguish between the real and the manufactured?
At his best, Dery cuts through the bewildering data fog we live in like no one else. In the perfectly pitched essay “Shoah Business,” he examines the commoditization of the Holocaust, undermining the moral uprightness of trekking to Germany’s Disney-fied death camps to be paraded past a series of carefully constructed illustrations of “suffering” and “evil.” When we wander by a (fake) oven into a gift shop stocking trinkets reading “Never Again,” are we really confronting history, he asks, or are we watering down, inuring ourselves, to the true face of evil in a similar way to the SS physician, who “after a hard day’s work of sending innocent men, women and children to the gas chamber ... [wrote of sitting] down to a ‘truly festive meal [of] baked pie and . . . excellent beer?’” This same urge to dismantle our communal illusions and reveal the maggots writhing beneath also fuels the piece “Pontification: On the Death of the Pope,” an essay that exposes the American media’s chilling complicity in consecrating the memory of Pope John Paul II, despite his responsibility for the church’s continued prohibition on condoms, a policy that hastened the deaths of literally millions of Africans.
Reading through the more autobiographical essays in this collection (“Jocko Homo: How Gay is Super Gay,” “(Face)Book of the Dead,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Severed Head,” to name just a few) it’s easy to see how Dery became so preoccupied with the schism between lived experience and collective reality. Given a window into the writer’s ’70s-era “stoner noir” childhood, we see a brainy boy marooned in a sun bleached intellectual wasteland populated with grinning meatheads content just to pack the bong and put the needle down on The Dark Side of the Moon one more time. The “No Exit claustrophobia” Dery experienced in response to all this blasé malaise branded him a “neurotic escapee from a Bergman film who had somehow ended up in laid-back Southern California, harshing everyone’s buzz.” The alienation he feels is torturous, but also liberating—so much so that he remains a refugee from popular culture to this day, parsing the beliefs of mainstream Americans from a comfortable distance.
These introspective pieces, many of which are crammed into the first half of the book, are among his best and, as time went on, I found myself wishing they’d been parceled out more judiciously. Dery’s tendency to write to an audience of his fellow Ballard-worshipping, SF-venerating geek boys can feel clubby and suffocatingly cerebral at times. These disarmingly frank and funny personal essays function as a welcome reminder that this prodigious brain we’re encountering does, in fact, come in the body of a human man—something that’s easy to lose sight of after reading pieces, like “Word Salad Surgery: Spam, Deconstructed,” a treatise on the literary merits of spam, and “Slashing of the Borg: Resistance is Fertile,” an essay unpacking the subtext of, you guessed it, Star Trek-inspired porn.
Like many of his fellow geeks, Dery makes a sport of trying to out-clever the clever and his pieces occasionally suffer from a compulsion to show off his considerable mental endowments. At his most undisciplined, his prose races along, becoming ever more baroque, his subterranean digressions leaving the reader floundering around for his point. But his singular ability to cut through the cultural hokum makes these small sins easy to forgive. While many of today’s writers work to flatter our intelligence, leading us gently to their conclusions, Dery doesn’t coddle, and therein lies his power. His whole purpose is to make us work a little harder, to shake us out of the torpor that blinds us to the subtext of our own lives. It’s true that watching his hypertrophied intelligence run frenetic circles around your own can sometimes be as exhausting as it is exhilarating, but his work rewards the effort.