As article after article and book after book keep reminding us—everybody say it with me now—the millennium’s fast approaching. Out of a sense of moral obligation or because there’s money to be made, writers spend valuable time assessing the progressions and pitfalls of society in the 20th century; more often than not, they’re finding that we’ve entered into the period of murkiness and malaise that always seems to plague humans as a historical change looms in the datebook.
The Greatest Generation by Tom Brokaw Random House, $24.95
The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium by Mark Dery Grove Press, $25
Unless a coffee-table-size tome’s in the offing, these beleaguered authors must focus on, say, a decade or a generation to weigh in with a cultural critique. The most widely read of these fin de millennium efforts isn’t by an esteemed scribe of Norman Mailer’s stature or even by some hotshot up-and-comer with a scrapbook full of clips from The Baffler, but by a nightly news anchor, the lovable Tom Brokaw. His best-selling The Greatest Generation doesn’t directly place his ideas in the context of this great leap into the 21st century, but his reflections on the Americans of the World War II era are cannily timed to remind us of the good ol’ days as we look straight into the abyss of the future. And in a subliminal nod to today’s vortex of big-business conglomeration, Brokaw has built the book’s phenomenal sales by appearing as a guest on any and every TV show and Web site in some way affiliated with the employers at his day job, NBC. How savvy, how millennial!
In his introduction to The Greatest Generation, the South Dakotareared newscaster speaks of his quaint inspiration—trips to Normandy for various D-Day remembrances—for celebrating a group of people who’ll soon be checking out. He doesn’t rub it in our faces that when the stars of his book were kids they were fighting for their country, for their neighbors, with an earnestness that today’s youth only apply to playing video games or hunting down kitschy memorabilia in thrift stores. Brokaw instead does what Ernie Pyle might have if the famed war correspondent had made it out of the bunkers alive; he allows individuals to tell their personal stories in plain old American. You can practically hear the patriotic music in the background. But I wish The Greatest Generation were written by Pyle, because he’d probably be so cantankerous after witnessing this country’s devolution that he would have given “The Worst Generation”—that’s us—the what-for.
Instead, that task falls to cultural critic Mark Dery, who might have benefited from such a pithy title rather than The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium. Nevertheless, this alt-Brokaw trains his eye on the freaks and tweakers of today, as he means to suggest in titling his collection of essays after a nickname that Coney Island, that ongoing symbol of eerie wackiness, had at the turn of the previous century. It also would have saved him the trouble—and believe me, this trouble transfers to the reader—of spending the first 40 pages of his book explaining why this wannabe catch phrase so aptly describes our whirringly out-of-control technological time. It’s especially frustrating since he uses 111 sources to illustrate his concept, and because the title’s inference, clumsy at is, essentially speaks for itself.
When Dery gets past all the posturing, he’s equipped with edgy insights about unlikely topics, such as America’s fascination with Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, which itself was a turn-of-the-century product. He continues deeper and deeper into the fringe realms, taking on cloning and male pregnancy in one chapter, science fiction cults and evil clowns the next. The implications are that the citizens of the late 20th century are, whether due to their own morbid psyches or dark societal forces, a bunch of helpless and possibly dangerous head cases.
Dery’s point is driven home with the assertion that the tidal-wave-like sea changes affecting the premillennial atmosphere are making everyone and everything helter-skelter. As he writes in the closing chapter, “America on the brink of millennium is less a coherent society than a fault zone, a network of interconnected societal fractures.”
Such alarmist statements can certainly find support, but Dery’s freak show doesn’t prove that we’re all mad any more than Brokaw proves that a bunch of geezers make up “the greatest generation.” Then again, what does it matter whether their era is better than ours? When the Y2K bug crisis hits, we’re all gonna die, right?