Recommendation: Read Mark Dery, Soar With Winners

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. 

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  • shrike||

    Bigger cages! Longer chains!

  • I Blame Videogames!||

    So you're into the cages and chains thing, huh?

  • ||

    Fist!

  • ||

    Shit!

  • C3P0||

    Beat by a sock puppet. How embarrassing.

  • ||

    I suck!

  • AlmightyJB||

    I had the Farrah poster in my room. Alt-Text fail! Farrah was a total babe. Who was hanging on your wall Tim? The Hoff:) lol. nttawwt

  • Almanian||

    This. I think every male in my high school had a copy of that poster.

    TIMMEH!

    Also - gaybots - NTTAWWT

  • anarch||

    there's no better way to wile while away your idle hours than reading through Mark Dery's new collection of essays

    Unless, given the context, it was intentional.

  • Killazontherun||

    Joan Collins. Freaked mom the Hell out that I had a poster of a woman older than her on my wall.

  • Tim Cavanaugh||

    Random House and American Heritage both give "pass time, esp. pleasantly" as a higher priority definition of v.t. "wile away." Both also give that definition as a way-down-the-list usage for "while." Frustratingly, neither says which is a variant of the other. Fowler, although he considers "while" more common (which usually makes the decision in the usage-driven Fowlerverse), nevertheless indicates that "while," not "wile," is the variant.

    My reasoning: "Wile" is the clearer spelling because the suggestion is not that you simply passed the time but that you found an enchanting or beguiling way to pass the time. And there's no other usage of "while" as a verb and multiple other usages of "wile" — all of which carry suggestions of attracting or luring one's attention.

  • Apatheist ಠ_ರೃ||

    pwned

  • Franklin Harris||

    I would have been 4, maybe 5 years old when I first talked my mom into buying me a coffee mug decorated with that iconic Farrah poster photo. I knew there was something about it, but damned if I knew what it was.

  • AlmightyJB||

    At that age, I'm guessing you were probably just hungry:)

  • ||

    James: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

    Mikey: "Yeah. Lunch!"

  • mr simple||

    That's a deep cut.

  • mr simple||

    In the radio DJ sense, not like a gash.

  • ||

    Does anyone read the articles?*

    *A rhetorical question is a figure of speech in the form of a question without the expectation of a reply.

  • Killazontherun||

    It seemed to meander, and I kept wondering why the guy thought HAL was a gay robot which is kind of stupid in that he wasn't a robot, and they were going for creepy serial killer, not Georgetown maître d' with his voice. It is a horrible stretch to make a useless point. That kept me preoccupied for several paragraphs in Tim's piece before I gave up.

  • R||

    +1. I never quite understood the need to read non-existent risqué subtext into popular entertainment. I mean, it's one thing to read a rape subtext into a film that is totally about rape, but to do it to a story that never actually meant to create that subtext is more of an exercise of mental masturbation than anything.

  • R||

    Forgot to close my tag. :(

  • Killazontherun||

    Reminds me of the truly inspired monster Stephen King created for Dream Catcher, the shit weasel. Ass cancer come to life. His readers are growing old with him and learning there are worse things in the world than dying young in a car crash.

  • ||

    I never quite understood the need to read non-existent risqué subtext into popular entertainment.

    Easy:

    1) It gives the viewer/reader a sense that their given interests and proclivities are shared by others, and negates the feeling of being "the only one that feels that way." AKA, "Projection." (In every sense of the word.)

    2) It also gives writers a new outlet for critique of older works, mostly for term papers and other thesis material, not surprisingly in the gay-religio-social-pseudo-science-under-water-basket-weaving-Hey-is-my-Rhooba-eye-raping-me degrees and deparments.

  • ||

    Also, it's funny.

  • ||

    Also, it's funny.

    True, but c'mon, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

  • ||

    And sometimes it's a big, fat (funny) dick!

    And you gotta admit, Alien had its fair share of cigars (and ash trays).

  • ||

    (and ash trays)

    Very punny.

  • R||

    Yeah, sounds about right. I had to take several art classes for my degree (Computer Science with a concentration in Multimedia Studies), and #2 was pretty much the only trick many of the hardcore art students (and several of the professors) had. It was kind of sad, really.

  • ||

    #2 was pretty much the only trick many of the hardcore art students (and several of the professors) had.

    That is indeed pretty pathetic. The great masters of Classic Art, and current wunderkinds of the more contemporary art movements are hardly such one trick ponies.

    Even Warhol, who employed limited artistic techniques, like silkscreening, had the sense to at least vary the subjects of his art, and marketed it quite well, regardless of its critical merit.

  • R||

    To be fair, it was pretty much limited to their art critiques. Their actual art tended to be a bit more varied. But any time they were asked to write about something, invariably out came the essays about "Why Goodfellas was actually about homosexuality in 1980s America". Kind of got old after a while.

  • ||

    invariably out came the essays about "Why Goodfellas was actually about homosexuality in 1980s America"

    Huh, you mean it wasn't? Well! Live and learn.

    /snark

  • juris imprudent||

    Was there any other reason for them to go to prison?

  • Amakudari||

    Well, honestly, I don't much of what they can do academically. The study of why something "looks cool" or "ties the room together" feels much less noble. Not to mention how the value of art often has much less to do with an earnest appraisal of talent than herd mentalities.

    Besides, bullshit-peddling is an important skill for an artist to have.

  • R||

    Besides, bullshit-peddling is an important skill for an artist to have.

    Very true. Especially for the ones that concentrate on the more hackish forms of modern & postmodernism. Wouldn't be able to sell anything otherwise.

  • ||

    Anyway...

    And in all seriousness...

    Tim, do you ever feel that you are writing for retards, or, in a biblical sense, that you are casting pearls before swine?

  • AlmightyJB||

    You should switch up your bait every now and then.

  • Almanian||

    lulz

  • Appalachian Australian||

    This is one of Tim's best articles yet (and it's not about L.A. development agencies!)

  • HeroicMulatto||

    Any article that doesn't engage in the logical fallacy of The Law of Cavanaugh's Folly is an improvement.

  • ||

    Heroic, you keeping saying stuff like this, but I've never heard of that, and can't find it anywhere. It might as well not exist that way.

  • HeroicMulatto||

    The Law of Cavanaugh's Folly is my neologism, so forgive me for indulging in a little boosterism.

    As for Black Swan Theory...

  • Fucking Coons||

    fake-wood-paneled walls

    What is fake wood made of?

    Real wood, I'll wager.

  • Almanian||

    Not that stuff you make decks out of. Well, some of it. Some is composite w/wood. Some is composite w/out wood.

    And, of course, some is composite with gay robot in it. NTTAWWT.

  • ||

    If a gay-bot is sentient, does it deserve special protection because it is sentient, or because of it's AC/DC circutry? Was it programmed that way, or was a Gay Ghost in the Machine present at initializing?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Dear Tim:

    I suspect my Roomba might be gay but am not sure how to broach the subject. I want it to know that, as long as it vacuums the floor while I'm at work, I don't care what else it sucks while off duty. I just want it to feel comfortable being itself around its charging dock. Any advice?

    Signed,
    Friend of a Friend of Dorothybot

  • ||

    FoE, I suggest you introduce Dorothybot to one of those BulletBlenders and see what the reaction is.

    The question will answer itself, FoE-hoppah!

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    You know, it's bad enough Skynet is going to wipe out humankind with hunter-killers, but does it have to destroy our culture with robosexual marriage as well?

  • Almanian||

    "Grand Prix: The Killer Years" - thank you, Velocity Channel.

    I miss those cars - except for the whole catching fire at the drop of a hat, and running into spectators, and not protecting the drivers and whatnot. Other than that I miss them...

    So beautiful.

  • Fucking Coons||

  • Never Forget||

  • PP-l||

    If that makes you laugh out loud, you know you're a cynical bastard motherfucker . . . and proud of it.

  • Almanian||

    (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.)

    You know who else was into branding and icono...wait. Never mind.

  • Barack O'Bama||

    Don't even THINK about going there!

  • Mary Stack||

    Why am I jerking off a horse?

  • chickenhawk||

    Maybe you got confused when someone said, "Help Uncle Jack off his horse."

  • Jerryskids||

    Just read Suck.com itself. For example, this prescient piece.

    Still the best site ever, even though they seem to be a little slow updating the site.

  • ||

    Yeah, it was must-read back in the day.

    (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.)

    Its safe to come out of the closet now, Tim.

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