Mark Dery begins his idiosyncratic overview of contemporary American culture with a 40-page overture, an exhilarating, dissonant ride that jostles between the end of the previous century and the end of this one. Then, before going on, he pauses for a moment to offer "A User's Guide to 'The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium'": "Readers expecting point-by-point exposition and the methodical accumulation of evidence, building to a full-throated peroration in which every loose end is tied up and every hidden truth revealed, are advised to abandon hope before entering." Some might suspect that this caveat is little more than a handy excuse for having slipped an uneven collection between hard covers. After all, the material -- which whiplashes from dissections of infomercials and daytime talk shows to meticulous examinations of our fear of clowns and freaks, excrement and corpses to tirades against the International Monetary Fund, multinational corporations and the Wired digerati -- has nearly all appeared previously, in Suck, the Village Voice, and a few other publications.But there are more connections and more cohesiveness here than immediately meet the eye. Cutting and pasting together his portrait of America at the end of the millennium, Dery, one of our most astute contemporary cultural critics, has found a 19th century antagonist in critic James Huneker (1860-1921). When the lights of Coney Island fired up in the waning days of the 1800s, Huneker was horrified by the fun-house mob that thronged the amusement park to collectively let its hair down: "What a sight the poor make in the moonlight!"
What a sight, indeed. And America's greatest mistake at the end of the 20th century, Dery argues, has been to invent ever more efficient ways of looking away -- not just from the disenfranchised who have been locked out of hyperclean gated communities but also from the flesh of our own all too mortal bodies. For Dery, that old standby the mind-body problem lies at the root of a vast set of dangerous dichotomies. His previous book, "Escape Velocity," was also built around the trouble this ancient puzzler gives us, and he did a bang-up job there of pinpointing the folly in cyberculture's attempts to solve it by dropping the body half of the equation altogether.
But while "The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium" is shorter by a third, it's somehow both a bigger and a lighter read. Here Dery escapes the claustrophobic confines of pure cyberculture and allows his sharp eye to wander over vaster territory -- and wherever he turns, he sees signs of a rumbling revolt of the repressed. A cinematic parallel might be David Lynch's "Blue Velvet," which Dery mentions more than a few times. With the exception of a short chapter on Celebration (Disney's disturbingly successful experiment in corporate-sponsored community), he wastes little time strolling through white-picket-fence America and instead dives straight down to that severed ear nestled in the suburban lawn. Dery relishes his role as curator of America's bulging cabinet of horrors, carefully selecting an item at a time -- a grotesque formaldehyde photograph by Joel-Peter Witkin, the "cometlike white swooshes" on the Nikes worn by the Heaven's Gate cultists -- turning it, poking it and then dressing it up with footnoted snippets of all the most interesting things that have ever been said about it.
The title itself is snipped from a 19th century description (but not by Huneker) of Coney Island, and Dery clearly revels in the carnival our culture has become. For all the fun to be had here, though, his warning of the dire consequences we face if we turn our eyes away from what's before us -- if we trade in Coney Island for Disneyland -- comes through loud and clear.