Chuck Klosterman’s volumes of collected essays always leave me feeling ambivalent. He is undoubtedly intelligent, and reminiscent of David Foster Wallace in style and approach, though DFW is at least several of orders of magnitude better. Lest you think I’m being unfair, this is also Klosterman’s assessment in one of the essays in Eating the Dinosaur where he talks about irony in popular culture1. But every time I read Klosterman, I end up feeling somehow insulted; perhaps it’s his long history of apologetics for awful cultural phenomena—one of his previous books included a long essay in which he praised MTV’s The Real World to the skies—or perhaps its some of the semantic or epistemological jumps he makes in order to segue from the illustrative object of his essay to its philosophical point.
In Eating the Dinosaur‘s defense, I think it’s Klosterman’s best collection so far. There’s a consistency here that wasn’t always present in Chuck Klosterman IV or Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. It’s less cultural apologetics and more philosophy or epistemology with cultural phenomena as narrative loci. It’s also, in some ways, his most experimental collection yet. I get the feeling that most or all of the essays were written with the book in mind, as opposed to being gathering of miscellany from other publications or filing cabinets.
I say this in part because all or almost all of the essays are constructed in such a way as to illustrate to the reader which particular thread he’s reading at the moment. It’s helpful when, for instance, Klosterman compares Kurt Cobain to David Koresh (long story, though it revolves largely around Christ complexes); by that same token, however, it’s sort of a postmodern trick that goads his readers into believing that his thoughts are so complicated as to require large, bold-faced “You Are Here” signposts throughout. It is not otherwise difficult, I don’t think, to indicate within the narrative that “I am now talking about Kurt Cobain,” which leads me to believe that this was a calculated design choice as opposed to a helpful rhetorical device.
So when I say that Klosterman is something of a shallow derivative of David Foster Wallace, this is both a criticism, a compliment, and a drastically important piece of information for prospective consumers of the former’s work.
Despite my own misgivings about and disagreements with some of Klosterman’s ideas, I am continually impressed at the way he attempts to tease meaning from otherwise mundane subjects. The aforementioned article about Kurt Cobain and David Koresh is a good example of the dual nature of this writing: some of Klosterman’s assertions about Cobain seem like facile psychobabble—yes, the man was obviously a tortured soul, but Klosterman does an awful lot of second-guessing about his reasons for being—but there is something significant in the assertion that the qualities of David Koresh (“preoccupation with persecution, usually associated with grandiosity; more or less continuous erratic, disorganized excitement accompanied by irascibility; bizarre delusion ideas coupled with obvious indifference to social expectations; and pervasive convictions of evil or wickedness in self or others”) are also the “core” qualities of Cobain. A significant difference is that Koresh executed these traits by forming a cult which was eventually raided/attacked; Cobain made anti-establishment music in an distinctly anti-establishment way until whatever darkness inside of him caused him to take his own life.
But then notice the semantic trickery that Klosterman must play in order to make Cobain fit better into this mould. Whereas Koresh did actually harbor paranoid delusions of persecution and evil—as is the wont of his particular brand of religious fanatic—Klosterman must resort to asserting that Cobain “saw ‘wickedness’ in things that were not wicked in any significant way.” The quotes around “wicked” are Klostermans, indicating even he knew he was stretching the term: equating Cobain thinking that Pearl Jam were tools is not equatable to seeing the world in a veil of sin, since even if we can relate the two ideas with some fragile string of logic, the gap introduced by their relative degrees makes such a comparison useless. This is where Klosterman drops the ball: instead of talking to his readers very reasonably how rock stars and cult leaders can be so similar (in non-obvious ways), he feels the need to stretch the comparison a bit too far in his attempt to elicit a startling revelation of the pot-smoking sort2.
When he doesn’t fall prey to this tendency, Klosterman’s essays here are quite good. Some flirt with being kitschy, such as his very serious take on ABBA3, but others are genuinely somber and interesting. One such example is “FAIL,” which is a very brief history of the Unabomber and half-hearted defense of him—not that he was right to kill people, but that his insistence that technology will ultimately take over our lives is essentially correct. With what I imagine to be an “Aw shucks” grin, Klosterman concludes that as true and frightening as this might be, he’s also perfectly OK with it, for better or worse—and, like it or not, so are the rest of us not living in shacks. I’m not sure if his conclusion stems from the same embrace of pop culture that has the ability to so infuriate me when he turns it to the insipid or the stupid, but I think it can be broadly assumed that the fight between intellectual objection and pragmatic acceptance is ongoing…. and typically the latter wins.
I feel the need to call out in particular the essay, “Tomorrow Rarely Knows,” about the independent film Primer, which is not only the best hard science fiction movie ever made, but in some ways my favorite movie of all time4. It’s not that I have anything particularly illuminating to say about it, or even that it contains the line for which the book is titled5, but simply that I’m glad the movie is getting attention, and it elicits a “cool crowd” reaction from me that I imagine is an inevitable byproduct of Klosterman’s work.
After all: David Foster Wallace wrote about cruise ships and lobster festivals; Chuck Klosterman wrote about Nirvana and Garth Brooks. Both did their damnedest to take these objects and derive something meaningful, but Klosterman wallows too often in pop culture, which allows him to lean on the familiarity of the topic and in some cases its tabloid nature. Does “The Passion of Garth” make us think more clearly about the meaning of identity and authenticity? Or does it make us think about what a schmuck Garth Brooks is? Since Klosterman’s own tastes and concerns seem to wend toward the tabloid, I have a feeling his writing does as well.
Clearly, the book has flaws, but I think it also tremendously interesting in places; Klosterman continues to intrigue and occasionally confound me, which isn’t always a bad thing.
- Irony was a particular hobby-horse of Wallace’s, and his writings on the subject are extensive. cf. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”[↩]
- “Dude, like, what if Kurt Cobain and David Koresh are like, the same person?[↩]
- One wonders just how seriously ABBA can be taken.[↩]
- Apropos of nothing: if you haven’t seen it, go watch it.[↩]
- “What’s the best reason for exploding the parameters of reality? With the possible exception of eating a dinosaur, I don’t think there is one.”[↩]