Mark Dery Thinks Bad Thoughts in His Latest Collection of Essays

In the introduction to his new book of essays, "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams" (University of Minnesota Press), Mark Dery lays out the foundation that shores up every one of these short, sharp, well-turned pieces: American Gothic, as epitomized by director David Lynch in the movie Blue Velvet.

"By the American Gothic," Dery writes, "I mean the stomach-plunging drop from reassuring myth to ugly truth -- the distance between our dreams of ourselves and the face staring back at us from the cultural mirror."

Basically, Dery wants to turn society over and shine some light on the dark, crawly things growing underneath it -- and us. And he wants to do this not only because he thinks it helps us understand ourselves, but because he believes in intellectual freedom, and "intellectual freedom is unimaginable without the right to think the unthinkable."

"Thinking Bad Thoughts," he says, "is an intellectual insurgency against the friendly fascisms of right and left."

Dery is farther left than right -- he refers to himself as occupying "a sniper's perch on the post-Marxist left" -- but he's willing to take on idiocy wherever he finds it. And he approaches every new episode of idiocy in the same pragmatic, entertaining, no-bullshit way regardless of its origin, whether he's debunking the popular notion of Mark Twain as a benign all-American sage and demonstrating that Twain is the man from whom William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson learned their "close-quarter knife-fighting skills," or knocking Lady Gaga down a few pegs in "Aladdin Sane Called. He Wants His Lightning Bolt Back," while acknowledging that the "Bad Romance" video shows "real's Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals, as reimagined by Matthew Barney."

In this wide-ranging collection of essays, most of which originally appeared online, Dery takes on Hitler and the Holocaust, Facebook, self-help books, jock culture, the relationship between Satan and Santa (yes, Dery says, there is one), several flavors of porn, and blogging, among other things. In each, he has a way of summing things up in just a few pages that brings the various strands he's been playing with together into one seemingly inevitable and somewhat menacing braid. 

In a 2002 essay called "Gray Matter: The Obscure Pleasures of Medical Libraries," for example, he goes from a discussion of the New York Academy of Medicine Library (creepy) to sci-fi noir novelist J.G. Ballard (very creepy), via a Journal of Forensic Sciences article titled "Autoerotic Fatalities with Power Hydraulics" (super creepy), and arrives at this fitting conclusion: "The novelist, then, as society's forensic pathologist."

But Dery wants us to do more than just admire his smarts and his way with words; he actually wants us to join him in thinking hard about stuff that people find it easier not to think about at all, let alone write about.

"Maybe it's time we outgrew our thumb-sucking self-absorption," he writes in "Tripe Soup for the Soul." "Maybe we should ask ourselves: What is our manic pursuit of happiness a flight from? What are our daily affirmations a lucky charm against?"

In the end, what makes Dery such an appealing tour guide through all these bad thoughts of his is that he's right there with us, trying to answer the tough questions, and willing to turn his probing mind and eye on himself, too. It's no wonder that he mentions George Orwell more than once -- Orwell, he writes, "lanced the abscesses of his own soul as unflinchingly as he did society's."

And while he may stumble occasionally (an essay on the erotic appeal of Madonna's big toe and foot lust in general shows him slightly less sharp than usual), even his misses will make you look at the world in a whole new and rewardingly disturbing way.

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams will be published on April 1 and is available for pre-order at Changing Hands and Bookman's.

Deborah Sussman leads the Downtown Phoenix Book Group at MADE.

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Deborah H. Sussman