America's Pop Culture Savant
Taylor Antrim on why Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, Eating the Dinosaur, shows him as pop-culture obsessed as always and wonders if his shtick still works.
Chuck Klosterman, pop-culture savant, patron saint of stoner intellectuals, Buddha of New York’s L-train set, has officially grown up. Check out his warm, toothy, zero-attitude smile on the back flap of his new essay collection, Eating the Dinosaur. Gone is the irritating smirk from the author photos of his earlier books, among them Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live. At what point in a man’s life does he stop smirking at cameras? 32? 34? Some boyish arrogance must be grown out of; some degree of maturity attained. Whatever the age, Klosterman has evidently reached it.
Okay, call it a mixed blessing. Part of the pleasure of Cocoa Puffs was the attitude, the blend of startlingly detailed mass-media opinion, braggy drug-use stories, and laments for ex-girlfriends. Those essays, from glossies like Spin, Esquire, and The New York Times Magazine, ranged from the nature of reality in MTV’s The Real World, to porn, to why it’s cool that Billy Joel is so uncool. Together they read like a dive-bar lecture series: insouciant, slightly surly, mock profound.
Puzzling through Klosterman’s nerdy, knotty arguments is like playing one of those brain-training video games that were briefly all the rage in 2007: you get mental workout without actually learning anything.
The Klosterman of Eating the Dinosaur is more thoughtful, possibly more sober and certainly less self-obsessed. The opening essay ponders the merits of public disclosure. “Why do people talk [about themselves]?” this professional navel-gazer asks, and then turns to documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and This American Life’s Ira Glass for answers. In an essay excoriating TV’s use of laugh-tracks he admits, “Sometimes writing is like talking to a stranger who’s exactly like yourself in every possible way, only to realize that this stranger is boring as shit.”
Perhaps Klosterman is a little tired of himself. Dinosaur is his most outward-directed book, one that specializes in nutty juxtapositions—Kurt Cobain compared to David Koresh, ABBA to AC/DC—and gentle, familiar-feeling provocations—the Unabomber had a point, the NFL is inherently conservative.
Or, wait, is the NFL inherently liberal? I’ve read that essay, “Football,” twice through now and I still can’t tell you which side Klosterman comes down on. That speaks to a more general problem here. While many of Dinosaur’s essays seem brainy and clever, they very often don’t add up to much. He quotes a critic’s assessment of ABBA’s relevance and writes, “This statement isn’t false, but it’s wrong.” Huh? Elsewhere: “An ironist is someone who says something untrue with unclear sincerity; the degree to which that statement is funny is based on how many people realize it’s false.” Puzzling through Klosterman’s nerdy, knotty arguments is like playing one of those brain-training video games that were briefly all the rage in 2007: you get a mental workout without actually learning anything.
Still, there’s fun to be had. Klosterman has a knack for valorizing all things low-culture—“I am post-taste,” he writes here—and Dinosaur’s fanboy insights into the world of music are especially amusing. Here are three of the best: Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” is “a song about how Pro Tools made Puerto Ricans gay.” “’Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘Rape Me’ are essentially identical, both sounding like Boston’s ‘More Than a Feeling.’” “‘(Don’t Fear) The Reaper’ significantly increases my fear of the Reaper. The song is a failure.”
Incredibly this is Klosterman’s sixth book (the last, Downtown Owl, was a novel). At age 37 he’s surely one of our most prolific public intellectuals. Can he keep it up, staying abreast of the culture, serving up opinions like a short-order cook? It seems so—particularly in those moments where it becomes queasily clear that Klosterman has no fixed point of view. Late in the book he writes, “There is almost certainly a constructed schism between (a) how I feel, and (b) how I think I feel. There’s probably a third level, too—how I want to think I feel. Very often, I don’t know what I think about something until I start writing about it.” Klosterman may no longer be smirking at us—but, annoyingly, he’s still winging it.
Taylor Antrim is a critic for The Daily Beast and the author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual.