After his scrappy and occasionally amusing head-banger memoir Fargo Rock City hit stores in 2001, Chuck Klosterman soon morphed from bucolic hair-metal apologist to city-slicker pop anthropologist: The native North Dakotan moved to New York and become the voice of anti-elitism at elite print-media juggernauts such as Spin, Esquire, and Sports Illustrated. This privileged position required him to dive deeper for salvageable meaning in the Dumpsters of popular culture, even while continuing to reject anything reeking of “alternative” exclusivity.
In 2004’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he picked through long-discarded dregs of trash culture—Pam Anderson and Saved by the Bell, for instance—and recycled them into overextended riffs. In his latest, Eating the Dinosaur, he confesses spending “an inordinate amount of time searching for the underrated value in ostensibly stupid things.” Dinosaur rehashes many of Klosterman's longtime obsessions—authenticity, identity, and Kurt Cobain, for starters—and picks up where Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs left off, offering more pop-culture-for-dummies detective work based on imaginative but easily demolished pet theories. Also carried over is Klosterman’s habit of mistaking his own assumptions for universal verities: “We assume that all statements must be mild inversions of the truth.”
Appreciating Dinosaur requires a wonky postmodernist curiosity about Garth Brooks, time travel, and Weezer albums. And be prepared to accept the following conclusions: (1) smart people can’t understand anything except irony, which is why they misunderstand Ralph Nader; (2) AC/DC and ABBA are timeless because they’re irrelevant; (3) the NFL is Marxist; (4) laugh tracks condition New Yorkers to “mechanically laugh at everything”; and (5) the Unabomber Manifesto is an underrated literary classic. Sounds like one big in-joke, right? The author insists it isn’t: “When I am in the active, physical process of writing, I am writing literally.”
Klosterman’s trademark hipster-baiting approach is best exemplified in “Oh, the Guilt,” where he compares successful cult leader and failed rock star David Koresh to failed cult leader and successful rock star Kurt Cobain. Predictably, he gives child-molester Koresh more sympathy votes than Cobain, who Klosterman chastises for expressing public guilt over Nirvana’s unintentional stumble into fame and fortune. “It is unfair to compare Cobain to Koresh,” the author concedes. Then the kicker: “…although I’m not sure which one it’s unfair to.” Insert uneasy chuckle here.
In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Ralph Sampson” Klosterman revisits his abiding obsession with “greatness.” With intermittent coherence, he positions highly touted college player Sampson’s unremarkable NBA career as inferior to the more memorable "momentary greatness" that otherwise failed collegiate slam-dunker Benny Anders represents. Here, Klosterman’s shock-jock attempts at cleverness dehumanize his subjects: Sampson (a media “slave”) and Anders (a “Jheri-curled apparition”) merely serve as lowly pawns and easily manipulated symbols.
Inevitably, Klosterman’s awkward confessionals creep into the foreground of these essays, nudging aside the heaps of celebrity tabloid fodder he molds like so much Play-Doh. He wonders if anything he does is “real.” He talks about his self-hatred, his insanity, his defeatism, his technophobia, his susceptibility to duplicitous advertising, and even his recreational voyeurism. We learn more about the inner Chuck than we do about greatness, authenticity, technological evils, or the rest of Dinosaur’s shopworn Intro to Culture Studies lecture material.
In other words, the once-galvanized heavy-metal monster behind Fargo Rock City now just sounds like a bad emo band.
A former staffer at Pitchfork and Popmatters, Michael Sandlin has written for the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and various other print and online publications.