Chuck Klosterman is a genius. I won't mince words here because it's just fact. I even wrote a comic about him. While I haven't devoured his entire literary catalog (I have previously read Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story.) but there are few, if any writers I enjoy reading, and rereading more. Klosterman uniquely parallels popular culture phenomenons and always finds incredible insight within the things we overlook as mere mundane trappings of modern American existence. It's his unique eye and unique mind that combine to forge such witty, and evocative, prose. So, being a cheap, currently freelance writer, I waited and then snatched up the paperback version of Eating the Dinosaur from Denver's beautiful Tattered Cover Bookstore, and went headlong into consuming it's wordy filling. The book is good. I always write about things that I like, mostly. So, no surprises here, Chuck Klosterman did it again. But, instead of heaping praise on the worthy (mostly because he doesn't seem to believe he is worthy of praise), let's break this book down a bit.
First thing: Klosterman has appeared numerous times on Bill Simmons' BS Report podcasts for ESPN. He is generally a soundboard and an antagonist, questioning many of Simmons' established loves among the sports world, but more so, Klosterman advances his pop culture awareness into sports, not just as comparisons or metaphors, but as analysis. I suggest listening to his appearances on that podcast at your earliest convenience. It also affords the unique opportunity to hear the author's voice, which, for me, enhances the reading of his text by making it additionally conversational.
Back to the book. Eating the Dinosaur is comprised of 16 essays covering the meaning and ethos of interviewing (which also serves as the framing theme throughout the book), Nirvana as they related to the Branch Davidians in Waco, TX, time travel, cars, road trips, laugh tracks, football, ABBA and generational-relation in advertising. And there's more! What would YOU pay for such a collection? Wait, don't answer yet! No, seriously, shut up and don't answer yet. Klosterman tackles such a disparate range of topics, but brings them all back to their cultural significance. The questions in here are things like: Why do we answer interview questions? Do we every answer honestly? Why do we tie artistic significance to commercial failure? Why do we judge some athletes as busts? What does a road trip movie mean to/do for us? Do we know what's funny anymore? And several more. These are big questions. Huge, in fact, because they are right there in front of us all the time, but we don't often ask them.
Klosterman stops short of saying it outright, but I see the book as a treatise on authenticity. We, as humans, and especially as fortunate, affluent Americans, seek authenticity in all things. We want our music to be artful and real, our cars to be strong, fast, and energetic, our athletes to be competitive superheroes, and our advertising to be focused on us, since we know it isn't a staple of truth. We want things to be authentic because we are so often surround by parody, pastiche and irony. We gravitate toward music that seems genuine, and we immediately despise music that seems the opposite (even when it is entirely honest and genuine--Klosterman makes some good points about why fans of Weezer hate everything the band now composes). When Klosterman talks about Kurt Cobain composing In Utero as a direct attempt at authenticity (to resist his band's huge fandom) it never seemed inauthentic to us because we wanted to like Nirvana. But to Cobain, that love and subsequent commercial success, broke his plan to be authentic on his own terms.
Klosterman discusses ABBA in similar terms, that despite their singing in a second language and miming the musical style of '70s disco, they were so far from their audience (Sweden to the U.S.) that it was possible to maintain a type of authenticity that keeps their musical legacy from being tarnished. Essentially, as Klosterman aptly establishes, we are a society so used to employing and observing irony that genuine, authentic work seems foreign to us. Yet, we still crave it, even if we don't always like what comes out of it. What makes us authentically human? Are we not, largely, composites of pop culture references and dreams we think we're supposed to have? It isn't a question asked in Eating the Dinosaur, but it's a question I have to ask.
Are we merely composites of pop culture? Yes. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I look at it this way, I can bond with almost anyone via my knowledge of The Simpsons. It is, strangely, one of the ways I gauge the personalities of people I meet. If someone gets the reference, then I figure, almost immediately, that we will get along, at least on a cursory level. I think we all have these sorts of languages. Fans of LOST, for instance, or Heroes, or any of the litany of reality, talent competitions, all have a bond that pretty much locks things in first meetings. This is a lot like Nick Hornby's (and John Cusack's) High Fidelity, where people are, at least early on, judged based on what they like. I don't think the judgment is necessary (or correct), but we do establish an incredible amount of our personalities through our music, our movies, our cars, our sports heroes. Does that make us each inauthentic? Not in a world where the rules for establishing the "real you" leans on what you know and what you do. We aren't beings defined by sessility, instead we are defined by our interests and our actions. So, the most authentic thing seems to be doing what you want, rather than doing what may be more "authentic."
Klosterman closes the book with an essay on the Unabomber. It's an interesting choice, a very bold one, given that most people would not be able to look at such a character academically. The essay centers on the Unabomber's manifesto against technology, and deals with the authenticity, ultimately, of human beings. Technology can break us, enslave us, and bring us to believe that we are more free than we are. Klosterman agrees with some of the claims, and I can't help but agree myself. Here I am writing a blog to put on the internet among an infinite field of other similar writings. The technology allows me to share, but it also devalues this work because anyone could do something similar, and people do, and really no one cares. So is this work, this review, and this blog more authentic because I don't think anyone reads it, or cares to? Not really.
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