A Latent Talent

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts
Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams

By Mark Dery
University of Minnesota Press, 2012
317 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Rick McGrath

I’ll be honest: the first thing that attracted me to I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is Mark Dery’s rather poetic dedication: “To J.G. Ballard/ Pathologist of the postmodern/ astronaut of inner space/ matchless stylist, generous mentor. He sought the gold of time.” I’m not sure about Dery as a mentor, but everything else he praises about Ballard I can re-use to praise this collection of essays, including his clever use of Andre Breton’s description of surrealism as the ‘gold of time’.

Dery also summons Ballard as a theme-setter for his book, finding in the Introduction to Hello, America, the Dread and Dreams of his subtitle: “Cadillacs, Coca-Cola, and cocaine, presidents and psychopaths, Norman Rockwell and the mafia… the dream of America endlessly unravels its codes, like the helix of some ideological DNA.” And so it is with Dr. Dery, who peeks out of the pages as a kind of madcap CSI mortician, picking out the double spiral of ideological dualism that infuses American culture. Yes, Dery is a pathologist in his personal analyses of what makes America so… American, especially in his ballardian-conradian desire to “peer down, into that darkness, and see what’s there — to immerse myself”. And for true Ballard aficionados the investigative overlap twixt the Seer of Shepperton and the Diagnoses of Dery is the psychological one: teasing out the latent meanings of our manifest follies.

Insofar as style goes, let’s say both Ballard and Dery are stylists unto themselves. Dery’s voice is what I used to call smart-ass columnist — opinion dressed up as entertainment through sheer stylistic verve — but it’s like that and more, basically because of the often mind-boggling depth of research and linking of ideas that put all the flashy toppings on Dery’s Krispy-Kreme donuts of topics. It’s like that TV show, Connections, but on a socio-cultural level. Is this cultural criticism? Well, every now and then Dery reveals his left-of-center bias, but in the main it seems more like cultural exposition, a “look at” to see what surprising insights may be lurking in concepts most people simply take for granted. In many ways, the power of each essay is not in the topic Dery chooses, but in the fascinating places that topic takes Dery’s imaginative and investigative mind.

Dery’s topics run the gamut from dread to dream, all right, and some are simply classics: the argument that 2001’s HAL computer is gay, the righteous trashing of the self-esteem movement, dead fun with Facebook "friends" (probably changed now, as this essay was written in 2009), the Ga on Lady Gaga, the anxiety of IQ tests, the Santa/Satan conundrum — hey, it’s 32 trips to many, many funny farms and the only criticism you might have is not a lot of interest in an essay’s topic. Hey, peaks & valleys. And even then, you’ll appreciate Dery’s snap-ass way with the word-whacker.

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. Oh, yes you should, says Mark Dery. If “thought’s the slave of life” then thinking bad thoughts is the best way to reveal the hidden forces — aggressive, sexual, economic, social — that seek to repress us into unconscious bundles of conditioned reflexes. Time to insert a little consciousness. This is a classy collection — cool, quick and quite often simply hilarious. Think On!