Andersen takes a long look at how we got to the point where we'd elect a bankrupt casino operator, mail-order meat vendor, lewd beauty-pageant huckster and reality TV star to the office once held by Lincoln, Washington and Truman. The answer, which Andersen develops masterfully, entertainingly and just a bit long-windedly, is that we've taken leave of our rationality. As a nation, we've given ourselves over to make-believe, thinking more like children than adults.
It’s clear that Andersen is uncomfortable with the extreme relativism we’ve settled into. But he doesn’t grapple with what it might mean to give that up. If there’s a flaw in this book, it’s repetitiveness. Andersen seems by nature a collector. He goes for wide rather than deep. So he doesn’t examine, for example, how we would separate the junk from the gems. After all, the explosion of subjective storytelling is what has brought us new and beautiful voices in literature, on television and on twitter. At the end of his book he tries to redraw a boundary that moves us a little closer to sanity. 'You’re entitled to your own opinions and your own fantasies, but not your own facts — especially if your fantastical facts hurt people,' he says, echoing a comment by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. But the attempt is brief and feels halfhearted. By that point the pile up of detail — gun nuts, survivalists, web holes, scenes of cosplay, sci-fi shows and manufactured bubbles of hope — leaves a reader worried that a short manifesto on facts won’t save us.
Though some of his arguments will agitate readers on both sides of the political spectrum, Andersen maintains that in the past 25 years, 'America’s unhinged right became much larger and more influential than its unhinged left' ... This is an entertaining but intellectually restless book, one that moves fast and divines links between dozens of ideological, social and political developments. In a two-page section about the 'national ratification of fantasy' of the ’60s and ’70s, Andersen covers state lotteries, the birth control pill, Portnoy’s Complaint, Cosmopolitan magazine, 'Deep Throat' and 'the slang term stroke book.' It can be hard to keep up.
Mostly, however, Fantasyland is a persuasive work of diagnostic journalism. With this rousing book, Andersen proves to be the kind of clear-eyed critic an anxious country needs in the midst of a national crisis.
In this absorbing, must-read polemic, Andersen exhaustively chronicles a development eating away at the very foundation of Americanism. And what does it all portend? 'Nations and societies have survived and recovered from far more terrible swerves, eras that felt cataclysmic as they were happening,' Andersen writes. 'The good news . . . is that America may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope.'”
Andersen’s chronicle sweeps us from the delusions and fantasies inspired by the New World to the prejudices and manipulations of the modern media state. He has great fun tracing myriad ecstatic and demonic chapters of all-American lunacy. But he’s also deeply worried … His aim in Fantasyland is to ‘define and pin down our condition, to portray its scale and scope, to offer some fresh explanations of how our national journey deposited us here.’ He succeeds to an extraordinary degree … Andersen argues that all these threads, abetted by a spirit of ‘epic individualism,’ make up a distinctly American tapestry we inhabit today ‘where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.’’
Andersen persuasively shows that America is exceptional in the way fantasy overcomes reality for the rising majority. He also occasionally hints at, but does not fully develop, the other significant way America is exceptional: it is aggressively capitalist and entrepreneurial, far more economically libertarian than anyplace else on earth ... one has to worry that in some future moment in time, perhaps not far off, the forces of unreason will finally recognize what they have in common, will find each other and will seize full power in their own name and with their own agenda. Fantasyland has a true warning, even presented with Andersen’s deep thoughtfulness and (mostly) gentle humor: it could happen here.
Throughout, the author names names—Dr. Oz, for one, won’t be happy, and neither will Oprah—and takes no prisoners, offering incitement for the rest of us to do the same. 'We need to become less squishy,' Andersen writes, and instead gird up for some reality-based arguments against the 'dangerously untrue and unreal.' A spirited, often entertaining rant against things as they are.