Pop Culture Ceilings
My review of “Eating the Dinosaur,” Chuck Klosterman’s most recent book of pop-culture essays, was printed in the September issue of Liberty Magazine. You can read it below.
Eating the Dinosaur
Scribner, 2009, 245 pages
Reviewed by Alec Mouhibian
A corpse in Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology” recalls debating a friend over free will. His favorite metaphor was the neighbor’s cow: “Roped out to grass, and free you know as far / As the length of a rope.” As the two friends argued, the cow forced out the stake that held its rope and gored the speaker to death.
Chuck Klosterman can relate to that cow. A popsessive critic who writes about everything from Pepsi to Coke, Klosterman seems to know all that’s ever been famous for at least 15 minutes since 1960. His new book of essays mines the depths of a familiarly wide-yet-shallow pasture of pop subjects. There are philosophical musings on such matters as irony, voyeurism, and the ethics of time travel (to which the title of this book refers). In trademark style, not a single argument is made without reference to at least three indie-rock bands you don’t have to recognize in order to hate.
But unlike Klosterman’s previous work, “Eating the Dinosaur” is unified by a serious, desperate theme. Kurt Cobaine, Waco, the NBA, Britney Spears, “Rear Window,” Garth Brooks, football, ABBA, “Friends,” soda commercials, Ralph Nader, and the Artist Formerly Known as Whatsisname all have something in common here. In Klosterman’s view, each plays a role in explaining why his and our immersion in this constantly mediated celebrity culture has eliminated genuine feeling, concrete experience, and independent thought.
“We do not have the freedom to think whatever we want,” he writes. “And until we accept that, it’s useless to think about anything else.” But unlike your typical metaphysical crybaby, Klosterman has at least some knowledge of what he wants to think.
He wants, for example, to think of Ralph Sampson in the way many used to think of him when he played basketball at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s. A seven-foot-four center with the athleticism of a guard, Sampson seemed singularly perfect for the game. He ended his career as a singularly contemptible NBA bust– a symbol of underachievement so pure that there is no other way to remember him. “Sampson busted big by succeeding mildly,” Klosterman writes. “He was needed to remind people that their own self-imposed mediocrity is better than choking on transcendence.”
Klosterman also wants to think that the tears evoked by “Friday Night Lights” come from real emotions and not the TV show’s “realistic” jumble-camera technique. He wants to think that laughter should reflect what is actually funny and not what is merely supposed to be– though this is rarely the case, he argues in an essay on laugh tracks, now that the evil device has conditioned America into one giant Jon Stewart studio audience. “The only thing people in New York won’t laugh at are unfamous stand-up comedians; we really despise those motherfuckers, for some reason.”
Sick of his tears, tired of his laughs, a man has only one respite in the world. That would be football, which emerges from its own hoopla with Klosterman’s affections fully intact.
Tracing its history and wild evolution from the forward pass to the trend of barefoot kicking to the spread offense, Klosterman shows how football changes constantly while always staying the same — which is, in his view, sublimely, irreducibly beautiful. “It has a liberal cerebellum and a reactionary heart,” as he puts it. “And this is all I want from everything, all the time, always.”
At his best, Klosterman is an ideal bar mate. Reading him on a subject close to your heart is like talking to a smarter, more amusing version of yourself. He is amusingly tangential while still able to capture the hidden value of something in one good line, as when he mentions “a depressing song that makes you feel better,” a phrase that applies to so much of the best music. He’s almost witty and engaging enough to make a subject interesting even when it’s completely unfamiliar.
But the key word is “almost.” Such are the temporal, audience-specific limits of most pop culture that reading about a show or band you’ve never heard of eventually makes you feel that you’re talking to someone who isn’t you. (Even though Klosterman’s football chapter is the best in the book, he warns large parts of his audience to skip it.) This is why the finest critics of pop culture have a frame of reference in the higher, literary arts against which to contrast both the limits and the profound distinctions of the moment under review.
Klosterman, however, is ultimately complicit in the stupidities he attacks, because he thinks only in their terms. Occasionally, the problem is his language. Phrases like “consuming honesty” would downgrade anyone from drunken bar mate to media studies professor. And no matter what the subject, the words keep tumbling out, as if the filter’s too big or they are too thin.
A deeper problem reveals itself in the most courageous moments of the book. These include a strongly announced rebellion against irony, which he himself practices, and the reluctant sympathy that Klosterman is forced to feel for the feeble autonomy practiced by the likes of Ted Kaczynksi.
Both gestures come from a good place. Both are dangerously futile. Who, after all, could possibly be more obsessed with society than the Unabomber? Isolation isn’t always independent, any more than sincerity is always honest. Puerile preoccupations with autonomy and literalness– the trap of every confused determinist– ignore the state of realized individuality in which deceptions and influences are not absent but overcome.
That’s what beckons the cows from their chains. That’s what great art and great lives are made of. But if Klosterman knows any examples, he’s too distracted to invoke them.
In “Eating the Dinosaur’s” opening essay, Klosterman interviews a few prominent interviewers about why people give interviews. Why do people talk to strangers? Why do people talk? Filmmaker Ethol Morris, “This American Life” host Ira Glass, and celebrity profiler Chris Heath each scratch and sniff at various guesses, none of which really satisfy the author. Finally Morris speaks of a period of writer’s block when talking was a way to do “something instead of nothing,” and Klosterman uses it for the chapter’s title.
But . . . we know why people give interviews. People give interviews because they’re people. Being people, they’re lonely and vain. The vital question — which Klosterman always seems a little too curious to notice — is whether talking to a stranger with a mike heals this mortal condition or intensifies it.
I’d love to see Klosterman pursue that question. But I don’t think he can do it until he discovers God’s provision of the button marked “OFF.”