The Week in Consumption, 11/16 Part I

Each week I take a look back at the items I’ve consumed: mostly books, comics, music, television and film.

Eating the Dinosaur Chuck Klosterman’s latest collection of essays on popular culture.

When reading CK, I get the feeling that he hates himself. He constantly reminds us of pop criticism’s adolescent and narcissistic tendencies, but that doesn’t stop him from indulging in them. He never really fights for it as essential or vital. Instead he usually castigates the subscribers to pop fantasies, whose numbers always include himself. I’m similarly ambivalent about the amount of time I’ve spent immersed in pop cultural detritus, which bonds me to him.

In these essays, however, CK hovers nearby a Major Theme: how we share subjectively experienced truths with other people. Popular culture is Klosterman’s royal road to truth.* It can be found in basketball careers, classic films, celebrity interviews, and sitcoms. He even has a whole piece on the subject of literal truth that compares Weezer to Nader. His essay on time travel argues that pop culture is the best approach to identifying mutually agreed upon truths because it all takes place at a level of remove from experience:

All philosophical questions . . . deal with hypotheticals that are unfeasible. Real-world problems are inevitably too unique and too situational; people will always see any real-world problem through the prism of their own personal experience. The only massive ideas everyone can discuss rationally are big ideas that don’t specifically apply to anyone (54).

This argument undersells our emotional investment in popular culture. But I don’t think too many people are looking toward Klosterman to explain the social production of truth. We’re reading for the pleasure of his company. CK is an excellent bullshitter. It’s a pleasure to allow him to lead us down the garden path, although that pleasure is ephemeral. I never sit around aching to read another essay about ABBA, not this late in the decade anyway.

If you’re up for more than bullshitting, he can be a frustrating conversationalist. For one thing, as my friend Cinda would say, CK has a stunning grasp of the obvious. Klosterman delivers his obviousness with such aplomb that he invites kneejerk contrarianism. Take this example from an essay on surveillance: “Ignorance is not bliss. That platitude is totally wrong. You will not be intellectually happier if you know fewer things. Learning should be a primary goal of living.” (91) Now that’s confident writing. He really makes you feel like he’s sticking his neck out, right? But once you figure out that he’s not, this style grates.

Second, note how he fingers us in the above quote by using the second person, indirectly suggesting that we’ve been believing “ignorance is bliss” all along. He’s pretty condescending toward his imagined audience, which is easily misled and has a skewed view of their intellectual individuality. From the time travel essay: “People who want to travel through time are both (a) unhappy and (b) unwilling to compromise anything about who they are. They would rather change every element of society except themselves.” The fact that CK includes himself among this crowd doesn’t make the charge any less noxious.

Third, because Klosterman is bullshitting, he’s not at all invested in the ideas he throws out. There’s been a little bit of press about an essay in Eating the Dinosaur that compares Kurt Cobain to David Koresh. Klosterman’s links are tenuous at best (Koresh thought he was God, Cobain thought other people thought he was God) but I don’t think he really cares if we come away convinced. He just wants to write about them both.*

*This essay also rubs me the wrong way because it insists on reading Nirvana through how the band hoped to be perceived by others. That means it misses out on all the other things that make In Utero an awesome record. The myth of Kurdt can’t be dismissed outright, but by and large Nirvana fans are music fans. People didn’t listen to Nirvana in hopes of getting closer to Kurt Cobain; they read gossip about Cobain in order to better grasp the music.

If you go into Eating the Dinosaur with flippant, carefree attitude, it’s a wonderful way to spend a few hours. If you try to take it seriously, you’re going to get burned.

Julian Casablancas, Phrazes for the Young When the Strokes released Room on Fire, many critics spotted their influences shifting from Punk to New Wave. Now the Strokes frontman returns with an album of New Pop. By my reckoning this has two tracks I’ll enjoy for months and two minor growers. The rest is unmemorable. Opener “Out of the Blue” has a motor and a hook, can get stuck in your head for days, but it’s a little overlong. This is the closest thing to having another Strokes song. Unfortunately, the lyric was assembled by a primitive computer program: “yes I know I’m going to hell in a purple basket/ at least I’ll be in another world while you’re pissing on my casket.” Bright “11th Dimension” is more repetitive but better with lyrical flourishes that suggest Casablancas might actually be a weird guy, the bass line from “Bizarre Love Triangle”, and chimey synths that punch holes in the ceiling. The other two I rate, “4 Chords of the Apocalypse” and “Ludlow St”, are genre exercises that float on Casablancas’ vocals.

Essential X-Men Vol. 2: X-Men 120-141, Uncanny X-Men 142-144, Annual 3-4.

This volume includes three of the essential X-Men storylines: the battle with reality-shaping mutant Proteus, the Dark Phoenix Saga, and Days of Future Past. It also includes some great character moments: Cyclops taking on all of the X-Men at once, Jean Grey falling under Mastermind’s spell, and Wolverine crawling up from the sewer to fight the Hellfire Club.

Last week I praised the internal monologues and the artwork; now I’d like to note how the worldbuilding is starting to take shape, moving beyond foundations. Earlier issues had implied that the X-Men were “feared and hated by the world they swore to protect”–the resolution to their battle with the Hellfire Club, which leads into trouble with Senator Kelly, makes this explicit again. After about 50 issues with the same cast, we’re starting to get to know the cast in greater depth. As a group, the X-Men are lovable losers, still regularly falling to the likes of the Hellfire Club, the Shi’ar, Arcade, and even Alpha Flight. It wouldn’t be accurate to say they defeat these opponents–in fact, they usually settle for escaping from them. By the end of the volume, however, the X-Men are able to put down the new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Wolverine is emerging as a star, and the series seemed like it could go anywhere.

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