Mark Dery goes where many fear to tread. He's a member of that endangered species, the freelance intellectual, not hindered by careerist academic drudgery, stifling ideological lockstep or commercial pressure. He's grown beyond his earlier books, which paid too much obeisance to the gods of postmodern cultural theory. Here he seems more truly himself, and the writing has a freer vernacular flow. In this new book of essays he surveys a broad expanse of the current cultural scene with mordant humor.
Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling wrote the foreword, which makes perfect sense -- Dery realizes that in some sense we already live in a dystopian world. Extreme weather events and environmental devastation caused by climate change, medieval religious fundamentalists facilitated by digital technology and plutocratic political controllers who live in their own bubble worlds isolated from the rabble: It's the stuff of a cyberpunk novel.
The first section of the book is a skewed examination of the extremes of modern American life that we often take for granted, ranging from the ubiquity of the gun culture to the pop culture zombie apocalypse. Perhaps the funniest essay in this section is "Jocko Homo," an examination of queer aspects of the Super Bowl. You'll never look at football the same way again.
In "Tripe Soup for the Soul," Dery pokes at the mystical in all its permutations, from the Pollyanna placebos of daily affirmations to a hilarious essay on the similarities between Satan and Santa, and their pagan origins. In his examination of "shaman" Daniel Pinchbeck's ridiculous fantasies of a 2012 psychedelic rapture "triggered by mass activation of the pineal gland," Dery channels H.L. Mencken in his comic disdain for the ludicrous and irrational. It's not just New Age nonsense that stirs his satire. The pompous mummery of the Pope's funeral and the campy, overheated moralism of Jack Chick comic book tracts get equal attention.
The final section of the book, "The Anatomy Lesson," is the most disturbing, because it hits us where we live (and die). Here he examines the gothic and grotesque aspects of the human body, from dental horror to a meditation on severed heads, and here he most resembles J.G. Ballard in his unflinching attention to gruesome forensic detail. Like Ballard, he writes so compellingly that you can't look away even if you want to.
As Dery examines the dark corners of the American cultural unconscious, there's an exhilarating sense of freedom in facing uncomfortable facts, as scary as some of them may be. At its best, Dery's book approaches the wicked wit and imagination of his heroes Ballard and Mencken, and is a provocative cultural document of America in the precarious 21st century. For a diagnostician of the national nervous breakdown, he's damn funny.