The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium

Terrorists, tabloid media, escalating culture wars that have brought us to the brink of civil war: To many, America is an infernal carnival, equal parts funhouse and madhouse – a “pyrotechnic insanitarium,” to borrow a turn-of-the-century nickname for Coney Island. In 1999, on the eve of the millennium, Mark Dery foresaw our Age of Unreason – and excavated the root causes of America’s descent into permanent social chaos.




“In the mid-’90s, if you wanted to understand your contemporary moment, there was no getting around Escape Velocity. And as we barreled toward the year 2000, we were bombarded with countless tomes seeking to analyze our collective panic, but I never found a better one than The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium.” – David Hudson, Green Cine

Published in 1999, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium saw the future and, like Leonard Cohen, predicted, “It is murder.”

The rise of conspiracy theory as the explanatory narrative for a world that no longer makes sense; anti-government militias on the march; far-right preppers digging in for social collapse and civil war; the emergence of the Angry White Man (progenitor of white-supremacist mass shooters, 4Chan trolls, and men’s rights misogynists); urban myths of psycho killer clowns; the lonely anomie of Timothy McVeigh; the suicide cult of the Heaven’s Gate geeks; the Unabomber’s radical-fringe backlash against our high-tech society and the collateral damage it inflicts on human values and the environment: Dery saw today’s America coming and, borrowing a turn-of-the-century epithet for Coney Island, dubbed it a “pyrotechnic insanitarium.”

More than 20 years on, his dark–and darkly funny–analysis is more timely than ever. The millennial angst he dissected–a combination of the social and economic upheaval wrought by global capitalism, the paranoia fanned by far-right media, and the extremism kindled by social-media algorithms and spread by memes and misinformation–is now a permanent condition. The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium elucidates the meaning of our madness, revealing how we got to now:

“Distrust of the federal government runs deep in the American grain but it’s surely no coincidence that the secessionist, survivalist, and militia movements have drawn their numbers from the downwardly mobile lower middle class, specifically the angry white men whose median wages have been falling for more than two decades. Undeniably, the black helicopters and blue-helmeted U.N. troops that trouble their restless sleep are night terrors brought on by a shifting social landscape, where women in the workplace and the nation’s rapidly morphing racial complexion are challenging white male privilege on all fronts. But visions of unmarked helicopters and One world governments are also specters of the real New World Order of global capitalism, where free-trade agreements like NAFTA and GATT have sown the seeds of rage in workers whose factories have closed and whose jobs have been shipped south of the border or overseas. ‘The American dream has all but disappeared, substituted with people struggling just to buy next week’s groceries,’ wrote an embittered reader of the Lockport, New York Union-Sun & Journal in 1992. ‘Do we have to shed blood to reform the current system? I hope it doesn’t come to that. But it might.’ The writer’s name was Timothy McVeigh.”


The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is a theme-park ride through the extremes of American culture.

Praise for The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium:

“Absolutely stunning.” – Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz

The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium is both highly entertaining and deeply disturbing in a way that Mark Dery has made his own. The ever-growing pathologies of millennial America show up clearly on the X-ray screen of his penetrating analysis. Racily written, and filled with shrewd insights, this guidebook to the madhouse of the modern world is essential reading. ” – J.G. Ballard, author of Crash

“Given its utterly bizarre terrain, this is a very lucid book. I can only imagine the effect of these essays on, say, some bright but sheltered 17-year-old male Southern Baptist. It would likely cause the kid’s skull to spontaneously rupture. The book is also extremely funny. Mark Dery has a hammerlock on the zeitgeist. He may be the best cultural critic alive. – Bruce Sterling, Bookforum

“Dery’s book of essays lives up to its title. It consists of acrimoniously delightful, carefully studied scrutinies of current extreme behaviors, running the gamut of social phenomena, from the genuinely strange to the full-tilt insane. However, instead of succumbing to the temptation of depending merely on the freak-show shock value of material like this, Dery relies on his own visceral insight to explain these seeming aberrations as symptoms of a transnational, global economy come unglued. In wry, fresh, deadly lucid prose, Dery argues that this roiling pressure is bursting the ‘monolithic orthodoxies’ of culture, producing a ticking time-bomb. – Greg Burkman, Seattle Times

“An exhilarating, dissonant ride…[The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium] 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…Dery, one of our most astute contemporary cultural critics…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. 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…comes through loud and clear.” – David Hudson, Salon

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