Every year, I’m grateful to read one or two new essay collections that truly takes a scalpel to American culture, peeling back the layers and examining all the grossness that’s underneath. Mark Dery’s I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams does a thorough job of that, without even pretending to offer up any solutions. Dery simply presents his thoughts in a searing, often funny manner, lets it all out, and walks away casually. His writing is such a swift punch to the gut that you’re left not only gasping, but realizing that you’ll have to spend much more time processing his argument. And if the J.G. Ballard and Don DeLillo quotes used as epigraphs to Dery’s collection of works from the late 1990s through 2010 don’t tip you off from the start about what’s in store (as well as the quotes by George Orwell and the punk band X in the author’s introduction), the opening essay gets you pretty up to speed.
Examining our cultural obsession with zombies, the 2010 essay “Dead Man Walking” takes zombie books and movies — from the 1932 horror film White Zombie to the literary zombie mash-ups like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies — and neatly breaks down why this creature can be used as a metaphor for everything from Marx’s “political gothic” (in his Communist Manifesto)to the 2008 financial crisis to white supremacists communicating on message boards. It’s a phenomenon I’ve seen dozens of thinkers try to dissect, but Dery is really one of the only ones who actually succeeds at making sense of it, while keeping it totally interesting, and, dare I say, entertaining.
Dery ranks pretty high on the readability index. He writes in a frenetic, no-holds-barred style that too many writers are too afraid to embrace — or end up coming off like some sorry New Journalism clone if they attempt it at all. He tackles subjects that we’ve seen written about a thousand times before: Lady Gaga gets put through the meat grinder, only to be exposed as the David Bowie wannabe that some of us pegged her as. Bowie himself is the subject of an essay, although Dery comes at him from an angle that seems fresher than most of the countless other words dedicated to the Thin White Duke. He writes smartly about hot-button topics like Hitler and the “Shoah Business” that he believes trivializes the Holocaust by turning it into a commercial enterprise, and gives us a new take on America’s obsession with firearms (which was inexplicably published at the content farm Thought Catalog, where Dery often contributes) that will leave you worrying we’re all going to die in one massive Mexican standoff.
Santa Claus being in league with Satan, science fiction as inevitable reality (always a topic I love to read about), and the way sports like football reinforces homophobia: these are just a smattering of the things you will walk away thinking about after you’ve been introduced to the ideas of Mark Dery. He’s a smart, culture-obsessed writer, but the essays in this new collection are hard to stop reading because Dery accomplishes something so many modern commentators fail at: he keeps it interesting.