- The Washington Times - Friday, November 13, 2009



By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner, $25, 256 pages

Reviewed by Windsor Mann

In the movie “Big,” 13-year-old Josh Baskin makes a wish to become “big,” and the next morning he wakes up to find himself inhabiting cartoon-themed underwear and the body of a 32-year-old Tom Hanks. Wish granted.

When Josh walks downstairs, his mother thinks he’s a burglar, and in fact he is: He stole his own identity. Predictably, he finds his inner self by being someone else, but at the same time — and more importantly — he learns that reality, as unsettling as it is, is not something to be tampered with.

These two antithetical concepts — authenticity born of inauthenticity and the inviolability of reality — preoccupy Chuck Klosterman throughout his new book, “Eating the Dinosaur,” a collection of 13 previously unpublished essays that have nothing to do with either eating or dinosaurs. Hungry “Jurassic Park” fans will be very disappointed.

According to the back cover, the book’s larger theme is “something about reality,” which is correct but inexact. It’s really about authenticity, which is different. After all, one can be real and yet also inauthentic. Joan Rivers is proof.

The question the book poses, though never explicitly, is this: Can the truth be found in its absence?

To tackle this question, Mr. Klosterman explores such topics as Garth Brooks’ alter ego, voyeurism, what Kurt Cobain and David Koresh had in common, the merits of the Unabomber’s ideology, time travel, ABBA, laugh tracks in sitcoms, football, the human compulsion to answer questions, and the unavailing career of a 7-foot-4 basketball player from the 1980s.

If you have a pre-existing interest in all of the above, you probably should skip the book and head immediately to the self-help section.

Mr. Klosterman’s discourses, though topically random, are engrossing and worthwhile. He has built a career on extrapolating meaning from trivialities, and his latest creation does that. It is a work of depth about shallow things.

Some readers may find the essays lacking in humor, relatively speaking. It’s not that this book is less funny than its precursors — it’s just more serious. Mr. Klosterman has acquired many fans since his penniless days at the Akron Beacon Journal, and many of them expect him to supply a constant stream of ironic asides. He provides them in “Eating the Dinosaur,” but they are noticeably reduced.

It is clear from these essays that Mr. Klosterman wants to be a Serious Critic. To be Serious, he seems to think, requires being serious. And evidently both require being anti-ironic. In his essay “T Is for True,” Mr. Klosterman doesn’t just denounce irony (“Irony, as we all know by now, is not interesting”); he also explores and embraces its antithesis — literalism.

He points out what many of us already know intuitively, to wit, that today’s entrepreneurs of American culture are inauthentic on purpose in order to convey authentic feelings. American consumers have come to expect a degree of dishonesty in entertainers to the point that any honest conveyance leaves them confused.

This happened with David Letterman’s late-night admission on his late-night show of his “after dark” adventures. Mr. Letterman awkwardly confessed to some hanky-panky with a few female employees. The audience, not really knowing what was going on, laughed programmatically. They just assumed this was some kind of a joke. They giggled, as it were, out of comedic politeness, not because they were genuinely humored.

This brings us to Mr. Klosterman’s essay on laugh tracks, which he, like most Americans under the age of 40, thinks are “profoundly idiotic.” “Normal people,” he writes, “don’t have enough confidence to know what they think is funny,” and so they require canned laughter to tell them, in effect, “You can laugh now.”

Deriding laugh tracks, as Mr. Klosterman knows, has become a conventional practice, but he does it anyway. One could say he is being unpredictably predictable by siding with his hip and savvy peers.

To his credit, Mr. Klosterman finds something new to say even when repeating cliches. This is largely because he is always hyperaware of what he writes. “It’s a mistake,” he says in another essay, “to (consciously) do what everyone else is doing, just as it’s a mistake to (consciously) do the opposite.”

At times his self-awareness gives way to self-consciousness, which inevitably dilutes whatever point he is trying to make. In his somewhat approving essay about the Unabomber, he issues disclaimer after disclaimer so as to make absolutely clear that he opposes indiscriminate bombing campaigns via the U.S. Postal Service.

Now, is this necessary? It is unlikely that anyone, absent these disclaimers, would have inferred that the author approved of Ted Kaczynski’s murders. But Mr. Klosterman says he is “nervous” over what is, in fact, an inevitability: “there are always certain readers who manage to get the wrong idea about everything.” This statement is true to the point of being almost tautological. Misinterpretation and stupidity are inescapable facts of life.

These are minor quibbles, however.

For the most part, which is to say in every essay, Mr. Klosterman has something for the reader who likes to think abstractly about popular culture.

The New York Times once said of David Byrne, the former frontman of Talking Heads: “Even his most peculiar gestures — darting his head and tongue like a lizard, or dancing with stiff, jerky motions and a perfectly immobile torso — have an originality and a mesmerizing strangeness.”

If there are two aesthetic qualities that Mr. Klosterman seeks and captures, they are these. Though I can’t speak for his torso, his brain appears to be in solid shape.

Windsor Mann is the letters editor of The Washington Times.

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