Book Review 28: Surprisingly Deep

I looked around the building and I saw all my old friends from high school, only now they had breasts and were named Phoebe. And that's when I realized that teenage girls are the new teenage boys, which is why the Dixie Chicks are the new Van Halen, which is why country music is awesome.

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I was a bad reader when I went to North Dakota. I went on the trip without enough reading material. This became a problem when I barreled my way through the awesomeness that is Infected and then had nothing to read on the return trip.

I wandered into the bookstore on the F concourse of Minneapolis airport and a familiar name jumped off the shelf at me. Chuck Klosterman. I picked up a copy of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.

Jon recommended this book to me, saying it was funny and spoke to our generation. He was right.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays, interspersed with short, experimental entries called interludes, which are kind of like blog entries in a book. They are musings on pop culture.

Chuck Klosterman is a Gen X writer, discussing music, relationships, John Cusack movies, The Sims, Billy Joel, The Real World, and soccer. He grew up in a small town in ND and went on to live the life a of a Rock journalist. He doesn't shy away from his drug use. He's also deeply intellectual. And he is a Geek.

At first glance, the pieces look to be humorous observations on life, similar to the way Dave Barry writes. But then they suddenly turn deep and philosophical. Klosterman swims along the surface of his topic and then suddenly dives straight down to the bottom of the sea, where true, unexpected beauty is on display in its full grandeur. The sea has a way of drawing the reader in after Klosterman, as though his dive left a whirl pool to ensnare others.

His prose ranges from profoundly simple observations, like when he discusses the challenges faced by the musician who portrays Slash in a Guns N Roses tribute band:

Unfortunately, Young can't learn to look like a mulatto ex-heroine addict, and this is the only occupation in America for which that is a job requirement.

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… to more complex constructions -- stories within the story -- like this passage describing the trip to one of those concerts.

At departure time, only 40% of the band is not under the influence of some kind of chemical. Twenty minutes into the trip, that percentage will fall to zero. Even before we get on the road, this Punky character looks drunk enough to die; amazingly, he's just getting started. They're all just getting started. Everyone is smoking pot, and it's the second-strongest dope I've ever inhaled: I keep looking through the windshield, and the vehicle seems to be moving much faster than it should be. It feels like we're driving down an extremely steep incline, but the earth remains flat. I'm not the type who normally gets paranoid, but this is a bit disturbing. I'm trying very hard to act cool, but I start thinking too much; in order to relax, I smoke another half joint, which (of course) never works. I start imagining we're going to crash and my death is going to be reported as some sort of predictable irony -- I will forever be remembered as the guy who wrote a book about heavy metal bands who were mostly fake and then dies while touring with a heavy metal band that was completely fake.

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He also litters the text with awesome one liner such as:

This is like trying to combat teen pregnancy by lowering the drinking age.

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Klosterman does a great job of questioning the prevailing views about what's cool. As Marilyn Monroe's popularity has grown in recent years, Klosterman observes it has gone too far:

So many people have retrospectivly declared her acting to be "underrated" that she's become overrated, simply because she didn’t make enough important films to vindicate her advocates' claims.

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In that piece he explains why Pamela Anderson is actually the incarnation of the sexual archetype in modern America, and why people hate for it:

What I've come to realize is that a remarkably high percentage of everyday citizen -- and this applies to both men and women -- actively despise Pam Anderson. Moreover, their dislike for this woman is a complete conscious decision: They've decided to hate Anderson on principle. But what they really hate is the modern world; what they hate is that Pamela Anderson is the incarnation of the perfect, idealized icon we all sort of concede is supposed to be impossible. We've established this unrealistic image of what we want from the human race, but it angers people to see that image in real life. It sort of shows you why most Americans hate themselves.

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He goes into detail about why Anderson is the true heir to Marilyn Monroe's legacy. He skewers those who would give that position to Madonna:

But Madonna's not even close to representing contemporary sexuality in any important fashion. She tries way too hard and it never seems honest. It's very telling that the two best songs in Madonna's catalog -- "Like a Virgin" and "Like a Prayer" -- are titled after similes.

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What I like most about passage is his geeky use of writing terms to make the broader point.

Many reviewers cite Klosterman's first essay as their favorite. He explains how John Cusak ruined his life and made it impossible for any man to measure up to the standards of romance expected by a Gen X woman. And it is brilliant

My favorite, though, is his take on modern country music. Perhaps those years I spent in Montana are showing through.

The essay takes a deep look at America's relationship with it and the tension that exists between the wanna-be hipsters and blue collar, Midwest America.

The most wretched people in the world are those who tell you they like every kind of music "except country." People who say that are boorish and pretentious at the same time. All it means is they've managed to figure out the most rudimentary rule of pop sociology; they know hipsters gauge the coolness of others by their espoused taste in music, and they know that hipsters hate modern country music. And they hate it because it speaks to normal people in a tangible, rational manner. Hipsters hate it because they hate Midwesterners, and they hate Southerners, and they hate people with real jobs.

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He expands on this and cites some fascinating examples. One of the most interesting things about country music is that it does tell stories in a way that most pop or rock music doesn’t. In this essay he explores the topic in depth.

There is a theme underlying his essays, and it plays out strongly in this one. Klosterman learns that most people want to live a good life and are happy to have things just go well. There is smaller group of people, like himself, who want to go beyond that.

They are willing to leave their known life behind and head out into the wilderness to look for something better. They are pushing themselves for something more. And they are rarely satisfied. Most people do not want to "suck out all the marrow of life" as suggested in Dead Poet's Society by a Throreau-quoting Robin Williams.

But Klosterman does. That drive may be why he left North Dakota.

But whenever I go back to my hometown and see the people I grew up with -- many of whom are still living the same life we all had twelve years ago as high school seniors -- I realize that I was very much the exception. Lots of people (in fact, most people) do not dream about morphing their current life into something dramatic and cool and metaphoric. Most people see their life as a job they have to finish; if anything, they want their life to be less complicated than it already is. They want their life to have only one meaning. So when they imagine a better existence, it's either complete imaginary (i.e., Toby [Keith's] nineteenth-century Lone Ranger Fantasy) or staunchly practical (i.e. Yearwood's description of the girl who just wants to get married without catching static from her old man).

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This idea plays itself out less explicitly in other essays and passages, too.

Taoists constantly tell me to embrace the present, but I only live in that past and in the future; my existence is solely devoted to (a) thinking about what will happen next and (b) thinking back to what's happened before. The present seems useless because it has no extension beyond my senses.

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It's also the essence behind his take on why soccer is awful, why he has trouble relating to the cover band groupies, or his disappointment with himself for sending copies of the same mix CD to two different women.

He wraps up his discussion of Billy Joel like this:

Perhaps this is why I can't see Billy Joel as cool. Perhaps it's because all he makes me see is me.

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The 18 main chapters and 17 "interludes" cover a wide range of topics. And they sneak up on me each time. For the first page or so it feels like it will be a light, amusing piece, and then it turns deep and philosophical. Yet, Klosterman keeps the humor in the text throughout the depth.

There is so much more in this book than I can touch on here; you'll need to read the book itself to appreciate the true depth and variety here.

Klosterman's observations will resonate with anyone who came of age in the pop culture whirlwind of the 80s and 90s, and is well worth the time.

Life is rarely about what happened; it's about what we think happened.

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1 comment:

BillyWarhol said...

I wanted to read this but I asked a Chick Oksana who I used to smoke several Cocoa Puffs with + tons of Lines + Beers what she thought + she was unenthusiastic about it* I think it's cuz she's too Young + missed the Roaring 80's + the Cocaine Fueled Rock n Roll Excess that went along with it*

;PPP Peace*