A sweeping history of America in which Andersen argues that what’s happening in our country today—this post-factual, 'fake news' moment we’re all living through—is not something new, but rather the ultimate expression of our national character.
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.