Eating the Dinosaur and Constructing Reality

eating the dinosaurI’m not really sure why Chuck Klosterman’s new book of essays is called Eating the Dinosaur. The name sounds cool, but it doesn’t really say anything about what the book is about. Unlike Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, which had essays on sex, drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, there are (unfortunately) no essays on dinosaurs or their consumption in Eating the Dinosaur; the name instead comes from an essay on time-travel, in which Klosterman declares that eating a dinosaur is the only ethical reason he can conceive of to travel back in time.

Why does this matter?

Well, it’s always hard to describe what Klosterman writes about. On the first page of my copy (which says “advance uncorrected proof” on the cover,* so who knows if it’ll be on yours) is a (probably) fabricated interview with an unnamed source who describes the book as having “quite a bit about violence and Garth Brooks and why Germans don’t laugh when they’re inside grocery stores. Ralph Nader and Ralph Sampson play significant roles. I think there are several pages about Rear Window and football and Mad Men and why Rivers Cuomo prefers having sex with Asian women.” These kinds of things seem somewhat frivolous and unconnected, particularly when they are presented this way.

*I’m a pretty big deal.

Klosterman has become, at this point, a literary celebrity—he even had a fake Twitter page (now defunct, RIP)—and he has an established reputation as someone who writes intellectual essays about things like critically panned ’80s bands, reality television, and Britney Spears. Part of his appeal is that he tends to write about things that seem frivolous and unconnected—the back of the new book calls it “amateur anthropology for the present tense.” Klosterman is aware of this; he even jokes about it in his writing.*

*In his coverage of the 2007 Final Four for ESPN, he told readers to expect, “A lot of that, ‘Have you ever noticed that [specific Florida player] is like the [dated cultural reference] version of [obscure player from the middle 1980s] except that his [some ridiculous stoner concept about grizzly bears] has been filtered through the political ideology of [random indie artist currently on tour with Built to Spill]?’ We all have to pay the rent, rockers. I know who I am.”

This self-awareness, and the facts that he would title his book something “random” and cool-sounding like Eating the Dinosaur and bill it as being about “why Rivers Cuomo prefers having sex with Asian women” seem to indicate that Klosterman has settled into a formula that he is now milking for all it’s worth.

But that’s not really what’s going on. Eating the Dinosaur is different in both style and tone from most of Klosterman’s previous nonfiction work.

This is not to say that the book doesn’t read like Klosterman: He’s still writing about things like Weezer and Mike Leach and Friends, and he’s still explaining why these things are important and meaningful. Parts of the book seem like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs with a more contemporary cultural vocabulary (more about Lost and Don Draper, less about John Cusack and Tommy Lee).

What’s different about Eating the Dinosaur is that Klosterman comes off as almost uninterested in his own initial premises. A crass reduction of most of Klosterman’s nonfiction writing goes like this: Take Cultural Artifact A (Trix commercials, Saved by the Bell, Derek and the Dominoes’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs) and connect perception/image/meaning associated with it to either Cultural Artifact B or Generally Relatable Personal Situation. What makes these comparisons work, however, is that Klosterman is adept at identifying and exploring meaningful connections; by the end, the premises never seem superficial or contrived. Despite his skill, though, this pattern can get (as Klosterman himself seems to be aware of) somewhat predictable and formulaic.

In Eating the Dinosaur, though, Klosterman often begins with a premise (“What does Mad Men have to do with those new Pepsi cans?”), but works toward the connection more quickly, to the point where he is almost abandoning the “interesting connection” premise he began with. This makes the writing seem somehow less glib and more earnest, as if he’s announcing, “Yeah, this parallel’s kind of cute, but let’s get to the serious stuff.”

This is likely at least a partial reaction to his own success. As noted above, Klosterman is a very self-aware writer. Early on, Klosterman explains his own personal experience going from a journalist who primarily conducts interviews (the subject of interviews is basically a motif that recurs in multiple ways throughout the book) to a subject who primarily gives them. This indicates both that he is aware of how public figures construct their image AND that he is now in the position of doing just that. Eating the Dinosaur, following his first work of fiction, Downtown Owl, seems like his second attempt in a row to branch out from his own perceived formula, but you get the sense that Klosterman is aware that it comes off this way; he doesn’t want this book to come off like In Utero. As a result, Klosterman isn’t abandoning what he’s always done well, but he’s making sure to resist formula in favor of the “serious stuff.”

The “serious stuff,” in most instances, is what the mysterious initial interviewee calls “the way media perception constructs a fake reality that ends up becoming more meaningful than whatever actually happened.” Most of the essays in the book revolve around the idea that pretty much everyone now can and does at least try to control how they are perceived. The book probably doesn’t need a theme—most of the essays stand on their own—but this idea provides something of a justification for many of the premises Klosterman explores.

The second essay in the book (“Oh, the Guilt”), for example, draws an extended parallel between the careers of Kurt Cobain and David Koresh. By the end of the essay, though, Klosterman announces: “It is unfair to compare Cobain to Koresh. I know that. They are not the same; just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean they’re connected.” Actively undermining your own starting premise may seem like a bad thing to do in an essay, but in this instance it actually works. Instead of focusing the essay on the similarities and differences between two misunderstood, cultish figures, it places the focus of the essay on the more important point: the difficulty and ultimate futility of trying to control who listens to you and how they interpret what you say.

A problem with Klosterman’s newfound eagerness to de-emphasize his “interesting connection” premises is that now the premises occasionally don’t work. An essay about Ralph Sampson, for instance, is built around the somewhat unjustified concep that people wanted Sampson’s career to fail.

Even the essays that do work—such as “T is for True,” which examines Rivers Cuomo, Werner Herzog, and Ralph Nader as three of the only public figures who offer exclusively unironic public messages—don’t have the same resonance or payoff that some of his earlier writing does. Since Klosterman is quick to get to the more speculative or philosophical parts of the essays—in this case why unironic statements are so rare—he ends up spending more time on abstract analysis than he spends on connecting this analysis back to the original premise. In “T is for True,” for example, he spends time explaining why each of the three figures are misunderstood and why their lack of irony is so alarming, but he never explains why it’s these three figures who are so forthright.

The essays in Eating the Dinosaur are not as good as a lot of Klosterman’s previous work; many of them feel like they are missing a crucial part, as if Klosterman finds something interesting about his subject and then concludes the essay rather than explore it. The book itself could likely stand to be longer.

This, however, is progress. Klosterman earned much of his literary reputation by generating incisive and original cultural commentary through the connection of seemingly disparate aspects of so-called ‘low-culture.’ He’s done it so well, in fact, that it’s become his own shtick. Eating the Dinosaur, however, gets beyond that. Klosterman is less interested in a formula for “amateur anthropology” than he is in the themes and issues he has been exploring throughout his career.

What I’m eager to see Klosterman do next is make the philosophical side of his work the primary backbone of his essays. One reason his essays seem to end prematurely is that subjects like Weezer and Garth Brooks can only sustain an essay for so long; an essay about what Garth Brooks’ “Chris Gaines experiment” teaches us about media self-construction is probably less interesting that an essay about media self-construction in general, with Brooks as a secondary figure. Klosterman obviously shouldn’t abandon his low culture subject matter, but he proves with Eating the Dinosaur that he’s less interested in the formula for analysis than he is in analysis itself.

And Eating the Dinosaur is still a great name.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] The A.V. Club offered it’s thoughts on Chuck Klosterman’s new book, which John S reviewed last month. […]

    Reply

  2. […] to you, then go read Chuck Klosterman’s essay “‘Ha Ha,’ He Said, ‘Ha Ha.’,” from his latest book, in which he calls the laugh track what it is: The sound of dead people laughing. More important, […]

    Reply

  3. Posted by Pablo Chiste on February 26, 2010 at 12:07 PM

    Really great analysis on why this book wasn’t as effective as his earlier books. Check out my review of the book on
    http://pablochiste.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/nineties-nostalgia-eating-the-dinosaur-by-chuck-klosterman/

    Reply

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