The magic kingdom

Paul Constant

September 06, 2018

The Reading Through It Book Club has never responded to a book quite in the same way that it responded to Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. At last month's meeting, a few members of the book club announced that they had started reading the book and they loathed it with every fiber of their beings. A title had never in the history of our club received so much preemptory hate.

This month, the loudest protester of Fantasyland returned to say that he fell deeply in love with the book. In fact, he was so moved by Fantasyland that in his notes he kept a running list of all the delusions Andersen cited in American history. (He stopped tallying those fantasies about three-quarters of the way through the book, when his list was well into the triple digits.) But for many in the club, his love came too late; he so virulently protested the book last month that a couple members of the book club didn't even start reading Fantasyland for fear that they would hate it too much.

In a way, this is an appropriate response to a book about the United States's predilection for fabricated reality. One reader's hatred of the idea of the book so tainted others that they didn't even bother to read a single page. It was a response to a response that was based on a misconception. In short: fantasy.

Most of us who did read the book agreed that Fantasyland is an entertaining journey through history. From the Puritans to the Mormons to Scientologists, Andersen charts the expressly American tendency to go overboard in our quest for religious freedom. And from P.T. Barnum to Donald Trump, he tracks our eagerness to fall for loudmouths with big personalities. For obvious reasons, it's a pretty compelling case to make in 2018.

Despite all the amazing anecdotes Andersen pulls together in Fantasyland, the book failed to make its case clearly enough for my tastes. Andersen doesn't quite manage a Unified Theory of American Insanity, instead listing story after story with no narrative thread in between them save chronological order. He's a funny and informative chronicler of our cult of personality — I hadn't quite understood how Billy Graham had so eagerly thrust himself into the role of America's Pastor, for instance — but Fantasyland lacks the intellectual rigor that its premise demands.

Andersen too often falls into a cranky style of magazine writing (which makes sense, considering his long history publishing at magazines like Spy and TIME) when a slightly more academic approach would be appropriate. One rant late in the book about the childishness of modern adults — those damn superhero movies! — just feels like an old-fashioned man whining about the kidults these days. And Andersen's condescending approach to religion feels more appropriate for an atheist's manifesto than a look at how belief can go wrong.

And Andersen doesn't really provide us with any evidence that this is a uniquely American problem. More than half of all Icelanders, for instance, believe in elves. Is the the "good" kind of fantasy, or the "bad" kind of fantasy? And if Trump is a uniquely American prospect, how does Andersen explain England's toppling over into Brexit?

I would have appreciated if Fantasyland touched more on the systemic causes of these mass delusions. Economics and demographics have no place in this book. Andersen's tirades about the increase of LARPing and video games among adults, for instance, ignore the increase in disposable income among American adults, or the decrease in birth rates, or the increase in four-year college attendance, or any of the thousand other factors that led to the proliferation of renaissance faires in America. Instead, he cites the increased neediness of American adults as just another piece of flotsam in the river of American delusion, no different than the rise of anti-vaccination protesters.

But perhaps I'm asking too much of Andersen here. The idea behind Fantasyland is huge and hard to get a handle on, and it's difficult to summarize any actions that could be taken to solve the problems that Andersen identifies. Seattle Review of Books co-founder Martin McClellan characterized the central question of Fantasyland as a paraphrasing of Thomas Jefferson's famous quote: "does the fantasy break my leg or pick my pockets?" If not, then it's a harmless American quirk and should be allowed to continue. If it does violence to others, then it's a bad fantasy and it should be shut down.

But these fantasies tend to lurk in the grey space of American life. Andersen places LARPers in the same category as Civil War reenactors, but I'd argue that the latter are actively harmful to society because they glorify and celebrate a culture that depersonalizes whole populations of American citizens. Without the preponderance of Civil War reenactments over the last few decades, it's unlikely that the South would have seen an epidemic of statues memorializing Confederate "heroes," which were themselves part of an elaborate racist campaign to continue the legacy of Jim Crow.

I keep thinking back to that list of American fantasies that one member of the book club made while reading Fantasyland. We could go up and down that list and argue over which fantasies are in the harmful column (anti-vaxxers, Scientologists) and which are more or less harmless (Dungeons & Dragons, Disney World.) But even if the vast majority of Americans agree on the harmfulness of an idea, how do we act on that decision? You can't make a fantasy illegal.

Worse, those ideas in the grey area of American morality are very easily weaponized by bad actors. Donald Trump, as Anderson argues in Fantasyland, preyed on the American will to believe in the existence of some insane shit if it benefits us. Trump witnessed the big-hearted American belief that you can and should be able to make whatever you want of yourself and he turned it into a vehicle for xenophobia and racism and nationalism and everything that's ugly about us. For better or worse, he's the king of Fantasyland.

Books in this review:
  • Fantasyland
    by Kurt Andersen
    Random House
    September 05, 2017
    480 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.

Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant

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