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Eating the Chuck: On Klosterman's Newest Collection

Chuck Klosterman has become a household name in snarky pop culture criticism. But ultimately, his criticism suffers under the weight of his own self-conscious voice, and his newest collection further proves it.
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A recent story on the 16th anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death name-drops Chuck Klosterman, who once wrote a much-discussed "alternate history" of what might have happened if Cobain lived. Klosterman plays with Cobain's memory again in his newest collection, Eating the Dinosaur, in which he compares the Nirvana front man to David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidians. Klosterman has an obsession, and it has earned him incessant press all over the blogosphere. The guy is referenced in anything involving rock music minutia. He has become a household name in snarky pop culture criticism. But ultimately, Klosterman's criticism suffers under the weight of his own self-conscious voice, and his newest collection further proves it.

"Every straight man born after the year 1958," Klosterman declares in Killing Yourself to Live, "has at least one transitory period in his life when he believes Led Zeppelin is the only good rock band that ever existed. And there is no other rock group that generates that experience." This tenuous assertion could fly in humor writing, say, but this is a man who also considers himself a serious journalist. So we have to ask: Where is the evidence for his claim about Led Zeppelin and straight guys? Did he interview every person born after the year 1958? Of course he didn't; no one could expect that. However, it's unlikely he spoke to anyone other than himself. He plays both patient and shrink for his cultural observations--his grand statements are based on the behavior, opinions, and emotions of only one man: Chuck Klosterman.

In Eating the Dinosaur, Klosterman has grown a bit more. He still makes sweeping generalizations like, "The canon of rock 'n' roll is already set in concrete. The greatness of any modern act is measured against... the Beatles and the Stones." Yet this claim is convincing, more so than generalizing the emotional reaction an entire generation of men has had to Zeppelin. He can effectively comment on major trends--proven by actual sales and evidence--but is wimpier when forcing moments from his own private life onto the larger society, pigeonholing big groups at once.

Bigger problems with Dinosaur come in essays like "Tomorrow Rarely Knows," in which Klosterman riffs, with seemingly no current reason, on the possibilities of time travel. In one useless passage, he explains the entire plot of the movie Primer because a couple of the scenes relate marginally to his larger point, though what that point is, the reader is never sure. "Primer is hopelessly confusing and grows more and more byzantine as it unravels... I've watched it seven or eight times and I still don't know what happened," he admits. Then why does he need to write about the film for five pages? Why include it at all? The answer: he can't help himself.

Another essay discusses Ralph Sampson, a forgotten NBA player who entered the NBA with high expectations in 1983 before injuries ruined him after only three seasons. Eating the Dinosaur has almost no timeliness, and though a book of pop culture criticism need not be entirely current, most critics at least try. Sampson was drafted when Klosterman was 11. Devoting an essay to the man looks silly.

The clearest sign of Klosterman's limitations was his first attempt at a novel, Downtown Owl, which came out in 2008. It doesn't work as fiction; Klosterman's voice stifles the narrative. The characters are all flat, never given a chance to develop fully because the author is unable to imagine a developed, ticking persona other than himself. Obscure references to Klosterman's own musical and film interests still permeate the text, and are almost always outdated, as though he needs to impress: "Inside her skull, words and sentences sounded like side three of Metal Machine Music, an album she had never heard of." This sentence provides only a silly, self-aware detail. All he has done is tell us that he, Chuck Klosterman, knows of the album Metal Machine Music. His character does not and neither, one imagines, will most people reading the novel. It reminds the reader of Klosterman's presence.

In an ephemeral way, Klosterman's success represents something emotionally important about the zeitgeist. In the Internet age, everyone is self-publishing. People no longer feel like voices in the dark; they can blog, tweet, digg and yelp every opinion. Each person doing this wants to believe that he or she is either saying something so compelling, or saying it in such a unique manner, that their thoughts deserve to be read by the general public. Klosterman is the fruition of that dream: a nerdy everyman who is now able to publish his random musings in book form, and make a living from doing it. Nevertheless, he needs to find a better point to make than the thesis of most Klosterman essays, which is, "I observed the following music, film, arts event, or cultural trend, and here's my opinion on it." He needs to refine his voice and reduce the snobby allusions to outdated phenomena about which he knows far too much.

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