‘England My England: Anglophilia Explained’ , ‘All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters’ by Mark Dery

England My England and All the Young Dudes are long-form essays, recently published online, by the internet’s favourite polymath and cultural critic Mark Dery in which he explores with his customary forensic analysis and Menckenesque wit two formative experiences: his adolescence as an outsider looking in with a mixture of horror and disdain at the banality of contemporary American culture which he suffered as a small-town kid with a hungry intellect who found solace in subversive aspects of Englishness; and as that same adolescent and mascara-eyed Bowie acolyte struggling against rigid heteronormativity and tedium in that very same small-town USA environment. The two essays are of a piece, being thematically connected, and therefore deserve to be discussed in tandem.

England My England centres on an Anglo-Proustian evocation of the writer’s exposure to a kind of Englishness in the shape of The Children’s Wonder Book of Colour, an encyclopaedia aimed at the kids of middle-class parents that came out after the War. It seems to have been a strangely Arthur Ransome-esque potpourri (Dery compares it to his beloved Wunderkammerer) of mildly racist colonialist propaganda, Boy’s Own Paper stories, ornithology, flower pressing and other ‘suitable’ interests for the genteel offspring of the bourgeoisie. I picture an amalgam of Swallows and Amazons, The Dangerous Book for Boys, a Stanley Gibbons catalogue and Kirstie Allsopp exhorting the impressionable little reader to make do and mend and adopt the shabby-chic aesthetic as a viable lifestyle option. Beginning with a disquisition on America’s version of Anglophilia (apparently a subject little considered by our old colony’s Theory types) and its roots in nostalgia for a more blatantly rigid class system, Dery goes into questions of postcolonial angst, racial politics and the televisual offerings from BBC America. Those US fans of Downton Abbey are aching for a simpler time and a simpler hierarchy, alienated as they are from a bewildering social situation created out of multiculturalism, the multiplicity of images generated by the mass media and the cross-border depredations of Neoliberal economics: processes that in different ways and for different reasons destabilise notions of an essential American identity, presumably one based on the WASP template.

The essay examines England´s own notions of Englishness and the ambivalence about it on the left, displaying an impressive awareness of the current debates (I had completely forgotten about Gordon Brown’s speech on reappropriating the Union Jack from the far right, which is cited). A surprising revelation is the influence of the esoteric joys of Progressive Rock on Dery. Prog was a doorway into a world of erudite rebellion, of deep pondering over lyrics and analysis of album sleeves, the antithesis of the leaden stoner subculture that surrounded him. Jethro Tull in particular illuminated his teenage intellectual’s fantasy England, with Ian Anderson´s literate evocations of such exotica as the Church of England and the Blackpool Tower. Thick as a Brick proved to be a key text for rabbinical feats of interpretation, offering visions of a strange otherworld as baroque as any dreamt up by Edward Lear or Mervyn Peake.

This multifariously overdetermined fictional England (but then all nations are fictional, are they not?), this Marmite-and-PG Tips teatime of second-order signs, is happily free of any essentialist taint. Mark Dery is well aware of the unreality of his England, that it is a metadiegetic concoction created out of happenstance encounters with a seductive Other. If only the same could be said of the American – and indeed much of the English – Downton Abbey set. It is as unreal and as fascinating as the 60 million numinous Americas that we British carry around in our mythbound minds.

The Dery cabinet of wonders reveals yet more exhibits in All the Young Dudes. Again English countercultural eccentricity expands the youthful rebel’s dandyfied consciousness via Glam Rock, heralded by the classic Mott the Hoople hit referenced in the essay’s title. Teenage Mark was eager to escape the narrow bonds of dudeness and jockism that were the only ways of being male in his world. For this neophyte aesthete and dandy these options would simply not do, being far from commensurate with his self-described heteroflexible identity. All the Young Dudes was lauded as an anthem for outsiders in general, when it was released in 1973 and topped the UK charts, and was also seen by some critics as a paean to the gay subculture. Dery sees this as erroneous, quoting Lester Bangs’s observations on the place of music in the gay scene – disco, R ‘n’ B, Latino dance, Broadway show tunes, definitely nothing to do with transatlantic pop-rock. There follows an overview of the etymology of ‘dude’, a point of contention between British and American lexicographers (it’s probably connected to the Aesthetic movement in vogue in the 1880s and Oscar Wilde’s lectures in the US), the hidden-in-plain-sight homoeroticism in Saturday Post illustrations and its possible influence on the sleeve art of the single. An interview with the photographer, the legendary Mick Rock, divulges something of the process of the sleeve design. The image chosen is considered an ambiguous one, hinting at dudeness in both the senses of effete dandyism and of blokeish bonhomie. For Dery this locates the record, and Glam as a cultural phenomenon, in a free space that does not stiffly signify a ‘straightforward’ Queerness or simply function as a generalised vehicle for the expression of a Iiberatory teen identity. Rather it is a wild zone where anyone can be gay, straight, bi, heteroflexible, weird, nerdy, dandyish, femme, butch, whatever. Bowie, the song’s composer, is the ‘leper messiah’ who represents all his pretty things as their queeny king totem, but also the revisionist who later deplored his probably commercially motivated coming-out in the early 70s and dismissed any Queer interpretation of All the Young Dudes as misguided. His account of the lyric as a rather siIIy SF plot is unconvincing.

Mark Dery deploys his customary strategy in these engaging essays. He uses his personal experiences as microcosmic takes on the larger questions of American life, showing how the individual and the wider culture make each other. This isn’t some mere writer’s shtick but a technique for structuring cultural criticism in a way that is relevant to the reader. It is a discursive form that blends the pleasures of evocatively written memoir with the intellectual zing of sharply observed analysis. These two essays are  tours de force of Deriana.


EngIand My EngIand: Anglophilia Explained and All the Young Dudes: Why Glam Matters are available as Kindle e­books.

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BOMBSHELL: A NOVEL, by James Reich

The political thriller is a traditionally conservative genre, both ideologically and structurally: it rarely, if ever, ventures into questioning the sociopolitical status quo or exploring character and plot with any other literary technique than third-person realist linear narrative couched in unseasoned meat-and-potatoes prose. All those macho guys like Jack Higgins and Robert Ludlum would never mess with anything fancy like interior monologue or liberalism. Such popular fiction is mostly on the right, presenting unproblematised goodies and baddies: the good guys on the side of God, Queen (or President) and Country, the bad guys out to destroy Everything Decent People Hold Dear, and to hell with mixed motives and complicated moral perspectives.

Well James Reich has come to the rescue for those of us who enjoy suspenseful stories where huge stakes are in play but would rather read Don Delillo’s Libra than the Jason Bourne novels (the films are far superior, by the way). Bombshell: A Novel is a countercultural feminist thriller that pitches two complicated, driven antagonists against each other in a chapter-by-chapter countdown to showdown, a nuclear climax and an atomic anatomising of our collective death-wish embodied in the risk of our addiction to nuclear power in its bellicose and peaceful modes.

Varyushka Cash is a child of the meltdown at Chernobyl, born in that dreadful conflagration and marked for life by its literal and metaphorical fallout. She plans to cause the downfall of America’s nuclear power industry by a series of terrorist attacks culminating in the destruction of the power plant at Indian Point, near New York City. Robert Dresner is the CIA operative, skilled in the totalitarian arts of rendition and summary execution, who is burdened with the task of stopping Varyushka before she sets off her fantasy Big Bang. Varyushka and Dresner are mirrors of each other, both psychopathically motivated to serve a big idea – radical feminist liberation born of violence, a beautiful New Jerusalem constructed from the imagery of the SCUM Manifesto and Riot Grrl riff-rage, in Cash’s case; American power and its metonym the Agency in Dresner’s – but diametrically opposed in terms of sensitivity (Varyushka can love, Dresner can only fuck and possess) and sympathetic potential. Such is Reich’s skill in exposing the psychology of his characters that he can convincingly make the reader side with Cash, however ambivalently, and long for the fall of Dresner. Yet both are killers, leaving behind them the corpses of innocent people caught up in their schemes; both are able and willing to take human life in a cold, rational calculation of ends and means.

This is a brilliant trick to pull off. The author leaves the reader in no doubt as to the critical moral structure of the story, which draws in the major cultural and political developments that grew out of post-Los Alamos/Hiroshima MADness, examines the reformed-radicalism situation of 90s feminists who in one way or another have made compromises with the mainstream world (Reich isn’t judgemental about this, rather showing such realities as understandable if not necessarily inevitable), which uses dreamscapes, stream-of-consciousness passages and tour de force set-pieces to create character and make the reader anxious to know what happens next. But the emotional and intellectual development of Cash and Dresner (also of the heroic but tragic figure of transgender Vietnam vet Molly and various members of the feminist gang who raised Cash from a baby) is persuasively delineated so that the reader understands there is no clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy polarity here, knows Varyushka and Dresner down to the bone, down to the molecules, knows that in some ways they are both the preordained products of their specific circumstances and of 20th century America.

I invoked Delillo earlier, and his angle on modern American history is a useful comparison. This dazzling, absorbing book is working in the same area, taking on the big movements in postwar US society and joining them up with personal destinies, finding the continuities between the two, closing the gap between mass culture and the radical margins, overhauling the great machinery of modernity in a highly personal style.

Bombshell: A Novel is published by Soft Skull Press.


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Ballardian Man and His Symbols – Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J.G. Ballard, 1967-2008

A user’s guide to the Ballardennium, Extreme Metaphors is a collection of forensic analyses of the ambiguous, liberating, nightmarish 20th/21st century, a Freudo-Nietzscho-Jungio-rightist-leftist-libertarian hymn to the extremity of our obsessions. We inhabit the dreamworld we have made for ourselves, projected it onto external reality, and we doze happily in our consumerist, media-generated miracle of life while we harbour dreams of flying away, of atavistic immersion in a pre-human state of atemporality, of smashing the whole edifice and finding jouissance in the liberating, empowering destruction of life, limb and the screens of The Great Simulacrum. Ballard doesn’t hide flinchingly behind liberal progressivism and fairytales of inherent human decency; with the scalpel of his own obsessions, which are the same as yours and mine, he dissects the post-war corpse of the bright technological future the western world fantasised about before Hiroshima blew the illusion to bits in a mushroom cloud of pure death-instinct. He knows we are animals evolved just enough to cope with the needs of anthropoids that stalked the East African plains 4,000,000 years ago but who didn’t quite become smart enough to cope with the creations that language and its concomitant, civilisation with its necessary discontents, made possible for the modern ape, homo ballardiensis.

All of Ballard’s concerns and riffs – his ambivalent connections to SF; the collusive emptiness of the English post-war novel; The Atrocity Exhibition and the fractured consciousness of the individual in the mediascape; Crash! and the question of smashing through the illusion of society in a welter of blood, spunk and twisted metal on a real and metaphorical motorway; the insurrectionary potential of a terminally bored suburban bourgeoisie – are scrutinised and explored by and with an impressive roster of astute interlocutors (Ballard saw the interview process as creative and collaborative, a kind of temporary laboratory for his ideas). The terrible and astonishing truths of the modern world are laid bare with visionary perceptiveness and sly humour – something often missed in JGB’s work.

Rich with an exhaustively aphoristic collection of quotable gems, Extreme Metaphors catalogues Ballard’s philosophical interests and salient biographical circumstances (the sources of all those empty hotels and drained swimming pools) from the early 60s up to his final interview in 2008, a moving valedictory to all of us who have admired his work for so long. This collection is essential for all Ballardians, SF fans and anybody who wants to engage with the thought of one of the 20th century’s most important and original social critics.

And yet there is something of a lacuna here, a missing conceptual layer. Ballard’s interviewers, and Ballard himself, concentrate on the two works generally regarded as his most important. The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash! are the books most perspicuously reflective of Ballard’s philosophical perspective and the most cathartic. The former is a struggle, through the decentred prism of his avatar, Travis/Traven, to make sense of reality after the sudden death of his wife, a profoundly traumatic experience that served to confirm and magnify his sense that reality is utterly contingent. The complex, multilayered structure (forget the Naked Lunch comparisons, this is JGB’s anguished counterpart to The Waste Land) and the controversial subject matter that caused the US edition to be pulped would inevitably be the focus of intelligent – and not so intelligent – criticism (TAE is one of the most subversive ‘novels’ ever published). With Crash! Ballard arguably went even further into an alternative consciousness, a world like our ‘real’ one yet so utterly beyond it, a kind of negative (?) fantasy world where a technologised sexuality is divorced from its ‘natural’ object and transferred to a fetishised externality.  And this is the point I’m leading to: JGB rightly insisted on the need to transform reality through the power of the imagination, averring that his fictional situations are guides, however ambivalent in exposition, to a new way of being. Our obsessions become our central motivations, and those motivations build the extended phenotype of the mediated world.  But really he goes beyond this, time and again, throughout his work.  He posits a reality beyond culture, beyond all limits of time and space.  I have always suspected him to be a kind of mystic, a psychic escape-artist, scattering his overwhelming waters and deserts, launching his protagonists into the sky, not only breaking from the repressions that underpin our shaky social contract (Freudian Ballard) but releasing himself into a floating otherworld of nebulous Animas (think of all those strange, ungraspable women in his stories) and slowly shifting sands and engulfing lagoons (Jungian Ballard). When we read Ballard we swim alongside him in the great ocean of the collective unconscious.

Reading the interviews in Extreme Metaphors brought this mystical aspect into stark focus, and sometimes Ballard’s own words indicate that he is conscious of this interpretation of his sensibility and his writing. This is why, for me, Ballard’s most radical, most downright weird book is The Unlimited Dream Company. This is the work that has had the least attention from critics and the one that Ballard seems to have talked about the least. Maybe he wrote even weirder than he realised.  His only story set in his sleepy Ur-Suburbia, Shepperton, it tells of an apparently dead pilot who becomes a psychedelic shaman-guide transfiguring the dozing denizens of the little town and bringing them with him as they spontaneously take to the heavens, dropping the earthly burdens of their shopping onto the street. This is the book which, I strongly suspect, is the one most fully informed by his single LSD trip, which he took in the late 60s with seemingly hellish consequences; for there is so much in TUDC that is analogous to the alteration of perception and understanding undergone by the tripper. While I believe Ballard when he says that he tried acid some years after writing The Crystal World, citing this as proof of the latent potential of the creative imagination (after all, Flann O’Brien didn’t use psychotropics to create his own unsettling, comic Purgatory, The Third Policeman), the undoubted magnification of that warped, beautiful, horrific potential is certainly the inspiration of this uniquely strange book.

Elsewhere Ballard has talked of his appreciation of the pictures of Stanley Spencer, England’s greatest mystic painter alongside Blake. I believe this is no diversion from his attachment to Ernst, Dali and Delvaux but a central explanation of his project and his understanding of life. Just as Spencer made Cookham, his ‘village in Heaven’, a zone beyond the mundane, so Ballard did with Shepperton, a suburb in that very same place.

(Extreme Metaphors is edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara and published by Fourth Estate)

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The Quiddity of Will Self, by Sam Mills

This book has all kinds of metafictional fun and games in store for you, if you choose to step into author Sam Mills’s Alice in Ayahuasca Land surrealist paean to the almighty Will Self. Self’s spirit and style, cleverly parodied in the opening section as the increasingly deranged Richard Smith becomes obsessed with Self and the apparently sinister Will Self Club and merges his fractured identity with that of the famous writer; and many of Self’s concerns – the nature of language and its limits, the problem of creating narrative fiction commensurate with the complexities of contemporary life, the magical spaces opened up in the imagination by psychogeography, psychiatry’s will-to-power and the meaning of mental illness, and, of course, drugs – inform this twistedly funny and touchingly poignant story of confused identities, of mercurial spirits who reflect and refract each others’ personalities.

The basics of the story are this. Richard Smith is a struggling would-be writer dealing with mental illness who falls down the rabbit-hole into the world of The Will Self Club, a group of young decadent writers, a literary equivalent of the YBAs, who create a religion based on the worship of Will Self. There is a murder plot, an achingly sad ghost story in which the murder victim, Sylvie, also obsessed with Self, flies in through his window and enters his manuscript as he writes The Book of Dave. A love story with a sad ending, set some forty years after the murder of Sylvie and the breakdown of Richard Smith, is also a teasing mystery plot, a near-future dystopia and a dark psychedelic thriller. The most comic postmodernist swerve, in the spirit of Joyce, Vonnegut and Amis jr, is the final section, in which a fictionalised male version of Sam Mills (the real one is female, but she explores all kinds of genderbending and polymorphously perverse possibilities in comedically trippy fantasy mode) meets a sexy succubus at a book reading and finds his essence, his quiddity, is gradually sapped as she exchanges cosmically stupendous blow jobs for critical appraisal of her novel-in-progess.

So this is a unique novel in that it takes the idea of creating a fictional version of a real-life individual but goes even farther than say JG Ballard did with Elizabeth Taylor in Crash or Self himself did with various literary figures in Walking to Hollywood, to produce something outrageously funny and kinkily otherworldly, much in the style of the book’s inspiration Himself. (There is even a series of emails to Self sent by Mills to ask his blessing for the project. Apparently the real Sam Mills did this and Mr Self generously gave his non-litigious approval. So he appears as a shamanistic spirit-god, his ‘real’ self and as an electronic communication. Such onotological twists and turns!)

The Quiddity of Will Self made me laugh and think and feel, kept me entertained to the fullest extent, and decided me to look out for more of Sam Mills’s work in the future. Definitely my idea of fun.


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The New Elizabethans – An Alternative List

You are almost certainly aware – it’s been shoved down our throats since last year, after all – that our glorious unelected head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, will be enjoying (yes, she does occasionally crack a smile) her sixtieth year on the throne in 2012. To commemorate this exciting fact Radio 4 will be selecting a panel next month whose task it will be to compile a list of the sixty living Britons who have most influenced our national life. Just as the first Queen Elizabeth ruled over a Golden Age that ushered in the Early Modern Period, an era of cultural and political ferment not seen in Europe for generations, so it is said that our Elizabeth has overseen a time of greatness, of innovation in the arts and sciences, of profound changes in mores and social habits; that she has reigned as a symbolic Mother of the Nation at whose ever-flowing teat we grateful subjects imbibe comfort and unity.

Well I think the picture is not so clear. I tend to the Rotten theory of post-war British society – that it’s the fascist regime that made you a moron. (Not you of course, gentle reader.) And so, in that spirit of splenetic, contrarian, dangerously close to misanthropic disgust with this low dishonest decade or six, I offer you my own list of sixty luminaries who, in my view, have done their best to make Britain what it is today. And never before in the field of human TV watching, sport obsessing, flag waving, bovine conformity has so much contempt been owed to so few by so many.


  1. Katie Price
  2. Everyone who has ever been in Hollyoaks
  3. The Saatchi brothers
  4. The Beckhams
  5. Ann Atkins
  6. Peter Bazalgette
  7. Lord Tebbit of Chingford
  8. Wayne Rooney
  9. Peaches Geldof
  10. Whoever came up with Thought for the Day
  11. ‘Dr.’ Gillian McKeith
  12. Neil & Christine Hamilton
  13. Abi Titmus
  14. Simon Cowell
  15. The Royal Institute for International Affairs
  16. Garry Bushell
  17. Chris Moyles
  18. Cheryl Cole
  19. Danny Dyer
  20. Fred Goodwin
  21. Kelvin Mackenzie
  22. Louise Mensch
  23. Boris Johnson
  24. Ant & Dec
  25. Adam Boulting
  26. Pete Waterman
  27. Peter Hitchens
  28. A.A. Gill
  29. Phil & Kirstie
  30. Peter Andre
  31. Everybody who works for Talk Sport
  32. Sir Digby Jones
  33. Lord Sugar
  34. Jimmy Carr
  35. Rebekah Brooks
  36. Richard Littlejohn
  37. Melanie Phillips
  38. Kay Burley
  39. Andrew Neil
  40. Commissioners of BBC1 sitcoms
  41. Trevor Kavanagh
  42. Janet Street-Porter
  43. Michael Portillo
  44. Clarkson, May & Hammond
  45. Vernon Kay & Tess Daly
  46. Lord Prescott
  47. Keith Lemon
  48. Nick Clegg
  49. All royal correspondents and entertainment ‘journalists’
  50. The National Lottery Commission
  51. Lord Mandelson
  52. Sir Phillip Green
  53. Andy Coulson
  54. Lord Rothermere
  55. Migration Watch
  56. The Confederation of British Industries
  57. The Adam Smith Institute
  58. Everyone involved with Loose Women
  59. Quentin Letts
  60. And finally the two towering  figures who most neatly epitomise and did so much to create the spirit of this vicious and shallow age: Baroness Thatcher of Kestevan and Anthony Charles Lynton Blair.
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‘The Sea Is My Brother: The Lost Novel’, by Jack Kerouac

It wasn’t worth finding.

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‘I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams’, by Mark Dery

For the last couple of decades Mark Dery has been investigating the cutting-edge of American culture and counterculture with an eye at once empathic and horrified, thrilled with the creatively liberating possibilities of the future and dismayed at the still-powerful sway of the forces of corruption and bigotry. His original takes on such familiar fodder as Star Trek or 2001: A Space Odyssey and his revealing accounts of his youth and the cultural and political milieu in which he grew up, a lonely kid made an outsider by his intellectual gifts and lack of sympathy with the mainstream (the introduction, Gun Play), show how the political and the personal, the sign and the hidden ideology, are inextricably interlinked, whether we realise it or not. I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is a collection of his essays, published online and elsewhere, ranging chronologically from the late 90s up to 2010, chronicling his take on American Gothic: ‘…the stomach-plunging drop from reassuring myth to ugly truth – the distance between our dream of ourselves and the face staring back at us from the cultural mirror’; and ranging in subject matter from the ‘resurrection’ of Mark Twain to the disturbing imagery of online snuff movies.

Dery is a postmodern Ancient Mariner who has  plied the vast and depthless oceans of  contemporary American culture and politics and come back to buttonhole us all, just as we’re on the way in to the party, to show us that there is unimaginable darkness and insanity Out There. It would behove us to heed his warnings, because it looks like the Late Capitalist/Liberal Democracy party may be soon over.

Well, ok, he may not be quite as apocalyptic as that star of the ‘what do we do in the post-ideological era’ essay Slavoj Zizek (who wins my award for World’s Twitchiest Philosopher), but he’s a damn sight more readable. There is, however, a tinge here and there of Frankfurt School pessimism about mass culture which, to my mind, is a little one-sided. (Culture, mass or high, is always a mixture of curse and blessing, in my view – but enough  of my cheery Anarchist digressing), but even in his philippics against Web culture (World Wide Wonder Closet, Face Book of the Dead) he puts forward a view that has been seriously considered and should be taken account of. Anyway, that being said, he’s an astute plumber of the semiotic depths hidden beneath the surface of the meme pool. Every chapter, indeed almost every page, adduces evidence that we are heading inexorably towards the Post-American Century. Decadence abounds – how fast this mighty nation has fallen from burgeoning postcolonial republic, through ne plus ultra of empire builders, to fading power upon which the sun of global domination is ineluctably setting. That, depending on your point of view, is either something to bemoan or celebrate. Dery, being a good Neo-Marxist-influenced critic, I suspect adheres sensibly to the latter view.

There’s at least one zinger on every page, some penetrating aperçu couched in a piece of ROFL wordplay. But the puns are layered, condensing two or three ideas into one quotable nugget, linking disparate images to underline their connectivity in the contemporary imagination. Dery certainly knows how to create an effectively condensed heuristic – which is just a fancy way of saying he’s pithy and informative, I guess. In fact, I have the impression that humour has become a more significant element in his style over the years. I went back to my copy of his early work Escape Velocity: Cyberculture and the End of the Century and my perusal confirmed this view. His prose has taken on a swinging, grooving cadence, a lightness, that is nascent in the earlier book and pretty much fully blown in the earliest essays in IMNTBT.

But the humour, often mordant in tone, is only part of Dery’s critical armoury. The moral seriousness underlying everything he writes is shown up most perspicuously in a startling switch he pulls off at the end of Shoah Business, a controversial but unflinching essay on the commodification and ideological misuse of the Holocaust and the discombobulating experience of eating in the cafeteria at the State Museum of Auschwitz. (This particularly chimed with me as someone who has undergone the severe cognitive dissonance of receiving a postcard from Auschwitz sent by a family member. It is impossible to adjust one’s mind to such a monstrous juxtaposition of ideas.)  He subverts his apparently final judgement with a peripeteia that reminds us, to paraphrase the Situationist dictum, that there is a sleeping Nazi inside every one of us. A chillingly salutary reminder indeed.

Dery is a highly adept semiotician, writing with a rock ‘n’ roll swagger (the book’s title is from a song by LA psychobilly post-punk band X) but working within a dauntingly wide scope of scholarly reference, channelling culture both high and low, showing us new things in the familiar tropes of mass culture (the Super Bowl) and opening up the marginalia of American life too (the suicide note as literary artefact). Indeed, I am indebted to Dery for introducing to me the work of psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna, tell-it-like-it-is zoologist Gordon Grice and whacky Christian pamphleteer and cartoonist Jack Chick, inter alia.  I’m also grateful for the final word on that putative tool of the Bavarian Illuminati Lady Gaga. I could never make up my mind whether she was a force for good or evil or just another pop singer. Well it turns out she’s A Bad Thing. And it’s always good to see Madonna and her high priestess Camille Paglia (do people still read or listen to her?) get a lambasting.

The fact that the book opens with epigraphs from JG Ballard and Don Delillo is a welcome clue that this is not going to be some ponderous collection of theory-heavy, nigh-unreadable academic prose but a forward-looking, accessible-but-not-dumb journey through the  good, the bad and the ugly of that great  simulacrum called the USA. And that word ‘simulacrum’ is apt: Dery more than once references Baudrillard, another of the presiding spirits, in company with Ballard, Delillo, Mencken, Adorno, Horkheimer, Orwell, David Lynch and Lester Bangs, watching over Dery’s shoulder as he gets all Ciceronian on Postmodernity’s ass. That these wits, thinkers and dreamers inform Dery’s worldview is all to the good; his spirit (sorry to flout Mark’s materialist ethic here) is at one with theirs. I can’t put it any better than Bruce Sterling, who in his thoughtful preface describes Dery’s work as ‘an intellectual insurgency against the friendly fascisms of right and left, happy bedfellows in their prohibition, on pain of death, of thoughtcrime.’ In short, Mark Dery is my kind of public intellectual.

More relevant than Mythologies, funnier than Travels in Hyperreality, more readable than Simulacra, less gloomy than Living in the End Times, smarter than Hitchens and without the pomposity, Dery’s dazzling collection will, I unhesitatingly predict, become a classic of cultural criticism.

Mark Dery is online at http://www.markdery.com

I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts is published by University of Minnesota Press: www.upress.umn.edu

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