With Eating the Dinosaur, author Chuck Klosterman has finally penned a true sequel to his knockout 2003 collection Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. They're both collections of original essays examining the philosophical hidden meanings of popular culture. Where they differ, though, is in maturity. Cocoa Puffs took on The Real World, John Cusack, and Saved By the Bell. Dinosaur, meanwhile, attempts to explain the Waco massacre, the Unibomber and the mathematical theories of the film Primer. Obviously, this is headier, more mature stuff.
Klosterman announces as such on the collection's first essay, "Something Instead of Nothing," in which he contemplates how realistically (or unrealistically) interviews depict people. It reveals everything the book is about, from the formatting -- although the essays jump around from one subpoint to the next, they are helpfully annotated -- to the book's general topic, which is, "What is real?" Supplemented by interviews with documentarian Errol Morris and radio host Ira Glass (as well some delicious footnotes. Seriously, Klosterman provides some of my favorite footnotes of all time), Klosterman debates with himself and his subjects over why anyone would bother telling the truth in a public interview. The potential gains are numerous -- exposure, publicity for a product being sold, and for the ridiculously famous, a chance to interact with a sane, smart human being -- but Klosterman provides just as many reasons why giving interviews is a bad idea, and why telling the truth can be an even worse one. This is why Klosterman occasionally lies when being interviewed.
Later in the book, Klosterman considers whether it's better to be a perfectly built athlete with average stats or an averagely built player with those same scores -- do we appreciate people more when they have to earn their achievements more? He compares Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain with Branch Davidian leader David Koresh. He attempts to explain -- occasionally even justify -- Ted Kaczynski's worldview. As is Klosterman's way, the writing is incisive and humorous, though with diminished returns.
Klosterman seems at a Joe Sacco-like crossroads. Does he continue to write about rock 'n' roll and low culture? Should he pursue more "adult" topics like war, disease and bitter, bitter failure? Dinosaur feels like an argument for the latter. While his musical observations are compelling when coupled with more "real world" goals -- like on the Cobain/Koresh essay -- some of Klosterman's thoughts seem too tired and uneventful in comparison to his more socio-political material. On "T Is for True," he discusses irony, literalism and honesty as they apply to Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo, political figure Ralph Nader and filmmaker Werner Herzog. The Nader portion is insightful; the Cuomo section less so. The essay examines a guy who may or may not have contributed to the rise of the Bush administration (which is stirring), as well as the guy who wrote Make Believe (which I would rather forget). While Klosterman takes an original stance on explaining Weezer and its fans post-Pinkerton (Cuomo has always written explicitly about himself. Pinkerton is just the point where he and his fans' interests overlapped), the topic still feels rehashed, in that every Weezer release stirs up yet another conversation about how the band was better with Matt Sharp involved. And while I appreciate Klosterman's unique approach to the topic, there's still a part of me that resents people who argue that Weezer has released an album this decade on par with its '90s material. In a world where Jason Todd and Bucky can come back to life, a man has to believe in something, dammit, even if it means believing that Weezer will never be good again (but...but the "Red Album" was funny in spots...!). Keep "We Are All on Drugs" to yourself, pal, and pass the "You Gave Your Love to Me Softly," please.
But I could never call anything Klosterman writes in this or any of his other books disappointing. He's still the premier scribe of the aughts, as far I'm concerned, and I will continue to follow him, taking in his every witticism. Still, there is this slight feeling of fatigue in reading Dinosaur, the thought that maybe Klosterman is getting sick of all this nonsense. In truth, every book he's done since Cocoa Puffs has attempted to distance itself from that work in some way. Killing Yourself to Live was too concerned with mortality and fidelity to be taken lightly, IV was a clearinghouse collection and not a true continuation, and Downtown Owl, Klosterman's first novel, was another rumination on death (and his home state North Dakota). While Dinosaur is the closest Klosterman has come to mimicking Cocoa Puffs, it also works best when it takes on fresh, more adult topics. Also, sports, oddly enough. "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ralph Sampson" allowed me to have quite a meaningful five-second conversation with my father about basketball.