Whether you're starting your spring break or just slacking off work for another week, there's no better way to wile away your idle hours than reading through Mark Dery's new collection of essays I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.
I'm a Dery fan from way back, having run his Marx-by-way-of-Brother Theodore media criticism at Suck.com and the L.A. Times. A few of those old chestnuts have made their way into the book, including this meditation (now safely entombed behind latimes.com's firewall) on the Bush family and the curious way that the "wimp" label inexplicably attached to bona fide war hero George H.W. Bush was exorcised by his feckless, often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt son.
Even better, Bad Thoughts exhumes Dery's genuinely brilliant 1997 Suck history of gay robots in popular culture, from HAL-9000's "sibilant tone and use of feline phrases" through the "femme-butch subtext" in R2-D2's relationship with C-3PO, and on through the robo-car fussbudget KITT from Knight Rider, whom Dery describes as follows: "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows straightfacedly writes, 'It was love at first sight between Michael [Knight] and KITT,' who was 'peevish, a bit haughty, but totally protective' of his hunky rider." It all seems like fun and games, but by pulling in the tragic life and suicide of artificial intelligence visionary Alan Turing, Dery actually elevates it to a higher level of weirdness-but-truth.
Back in the Clinton era, this kind of thing was considered quite "whacked" and "out there," and for me part of the collection's interest is in the way it reveals how time has left our brand of hyperurbanized pomo japery behind. (The "news hook" for that HAL piece in ol' '97 was Ellen DeGeneres' coming out, which feels as ancient to me as a joke about Ike's golf game.)
In a terrific foreword, the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling turns this dated quality into a virtue, calling Dery a "prophet who predicted the past," has "abandoned his preset positions in the previous century's cultural landscape" and now "isn't 'advancing' anything much; he's not avant any particular garde." Dery has moved beyond sounding like "a hipster at the kitchen table of the 'coolest people in America,'" Sterling writes, and taken on "the ruminative tone of a Havel-style dissident living in truth amid ever more brazen lies."
Heady stuff! But while the book made me nostalgic for our shared salad days as sneering smartypantses, it still provides plenty of gems on 21st century culture.
In the inevitable burden-of-Facebook piece, Dery actually comes up with a few new insights about the endless high school reunion, crystallizing the horror and awkwardness of dead friendships into an evocation of late-seventies West Coast stoner noir that uncannily recalls my own memories of early-eighties East Coast stoner noir:
The curtains are drawn against the radioactive desert light – and prying eyes. The fake-wood-paneled walls are festooned with photos of arena-rock gods from Circus or Creem. Or maybe an M.C. Escher calendar. Or the poster that came with Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, a strenuously "trippy" photo of the Great Pyramid of Giza, eerily green in the phosphorescence of infrared. Or the bodacious fantasy art of Boris Vallejo, the Caravaggio of the roach-clip crowd: mighty-thewed barbarians and Valkyries in brass bras striking spraddle-legged attitudes against tequila-sunrise skies – core samples of the stoner unconscious, lovingly airbrushed onto bubble-windowed vans everywhere. Inevitably, Farrah Fawcett is somewhere up there, in the pinup that launched a million ejaculatory arcs of transcendence, to paraphrase Camille Paglia. (For whatever inscrutable reason, the bony, Coppertoned Farrah always had the opposite effect on this writer: that velociraptor smile made my undercarriage retract in fear.) Just as inevitably, the parents aren't home because the parents were never home, in those days.
This is such catnip to me that I can overlook the occasions when the phrasings outrun the cleverness. (I’m not sure comparing the Nazis' skill at branding and iconography with Disney's counts as even a cheap insight at this late date.) If you like this kind of thing too, this is the perfect book for you: easy to dip into at leisure, full of immediate gratifications, and never requiring serious commitment. In that respect, it's perfectly up to date.