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Book review: <i>Sex And Drugs And Cocoa Puffs</i> by Chuck Klosterman



If this was the first meal of the day, if would be a bowl brimming with your favourite guilty breakfast cereal pleasure and ice cold milk (unless you prefer hot). And you’d be hungry. For a while, at least.

Cover

Close up photo of a bunch of pills (capsules) floating in a bowl of milk, under stark, black, floating text. Like cereal. It is eye-catching.

Plot

An essay collection, mostly involving topics drawn from the contemporary cultural canvas, but more concerned with contrasting and/or connecting things in a new way than in simple reviews or summary judgements. Music, sport, beer, cinema, love, failed sitcom actors of the late eighties, it’s all here. This is the one that got Chuck noticed.

The good

It may be a bit lazy of me, review-wise, but this really reminded me of Vice magazine, and thus all its best qualities are to be found here also—self awareness, irony, junk-food post-modernism, a refreshing commitment to unconventional approaches to nearly any intellectual process (including, of course, music and other cultural commentary), flashes of hilarity (including trademark nuggets of startlingly personal information), spurts of intelligence amidst degenerate ramblings and vice versa. The only thing they wouldn’t agree on is punk music and the value of wearing this week’s proper brand of footwear.

Yep, it’s all here, plus, sans the unifying themes (ish) of his other two books, you never know which bizarre pop-cultural node is waiting to be fondled around the corner. The topics of the little one-page “journal entries” between chapters are equally surprising, and actually comprise some of the funniest things in the book—the “how to write cultural commentary” section is not only hilarious but also encapsulates nearly every “cool” press review I’ve read in the last four years. ESPECIALLY in Vice.

Sure is fun when you’re drunk! Again! Unfortunately, for this reason I am unable to recall many of the topics covered. To be general, however, this book demonstrates most obviously Klosterman’s ability to knit together strands of culture in ways so refreshing one is only left to wonder why it isn’t done more often. Does everybody in academia take themselves so seriously that they can’t rope cartoons and Motley Crue into a debate about consciousness when the mood strikes them and there’s a point to be made? Or are, as some have claimed, our primary media sources so tightly in the grip of the last three generations that by the time people start connecting contemporary culture with the things that matter that it’ll all be two decades out of date and we’ll sound like the bloody baby boomers do now?

Like the best observers and chroniclers, when he’s on form, Chuck makes it seem so very easy; of course, it obviously isn’t, or everyone would do it, and thanks to Chuck’s Guide to Cultural Commentary I now see his rivals in a whole new light.

Oh, one other thing—this is his first book, and though it has plenty of his personal life seeded throughout, it’s nothing compared to Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself To Live. If it had, perhaps it wouldn’t have made the splash it did, because here it’s just sufficient to seem honest and solid, as opposed to mundane (Fargo) or mystifyingly self-indulgent (Killing).

Oh, and he’s almost uncomfortably dead-on when he talks about generation X during a comparison between the movies Reality Bites, Singles and Empire Strikes Back.

The bad

When Chuck’s interests drift too far from mine (eg. Basketball, his ex-girlfriends, the obvious, paying out music he’s missed the point of) then I experience a sense of dwindling interest. This is compounded by the fact that it steers toward the conclusion I’m indulging myself somewhat in the manner of the geek by the stereo, spending all night talking to his fellow nerds rather than socialising—something Chuck himself (or at least the persona he puts forth) would not do. Being drawn to a text partly by the pleasure of finding a fellow shallows-wader and then finding oneself feeling simultaneously bored and inferior isn’t great.

Chuck is a smart guy. He knows when he’s being shallow, and he knows when to look smart. But perhaps that knowingness is not everything it’s cracked up to be—even the South Park dickheads genuinely care about some issues beyond themselves, try though they may to pretend otherwise. Chuck is an over-thinker, basically, and I know how that can affect a person—listen to this vague stream-of-consciousness masquerading as a review, for instance. As an over-thinker myself, I sometimes have trouble telling what Chuck actually believes, and what he merely thinks sounds good when he’s writing it. And, because there’s so much of himself in his writing (though, of course, I don’t really know him; it’s not for want of his trying), this dichotomy creates a strangely hollow reading experience that’s less pleasurable than it feels as though it ought to be.

I find this hard to convey, but let me give you an example—there’s a chapter near the end of the book where Chuck talks about ex-Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron’s starring role in the film of the Christian bestselling “Left Behind” book series. You’d have to be half-dead or fifty (whichever comes first) not to see that this is fertile ground, but Chuck can’t quite make it play. Firstly, he takes no strong opinion on the moral aspects of a series of books based on the Rapture. Fair enough. But the strongest opinion he does espouse in the course of the essay is that Born Again Christians are “great”—but NOT, he hastens to add, because of their moral certainty. Just in case you thought he was going to adopt a position anybody else has ever taken. In fact, if you DO take this point of view, you are being snobbish, apparently, because it means you are REALLY saying that your vast intellect has doomed you to atheism, unlike these poor simps (which may be half true, but that ain’t the truth). No, the reasons BACs are worthy of envy is because the total unambiguity of their personal truths means that everything they do is centred around their belief, and if their belief, i.e. their duty to God, is the most important thing in the world then therefore every aspect of their life must be fantastically intense and meaningful. Which is an interesting argument, except it’s bullshit. Well, half bullshit. My mother is about as born-again as you can be outside of late-night American cable television, and the colours of her life may be totally tinted by religion, but it’s also exactly as normal as everybody else’s in a day-to-day sense. I’m not saying this argument is off limits, I just don’t think Chuck really believes it any more than the plot of the Left Behind series. I think he just likes the way it sounds in his head. Chuck then brings out a bundle of interesting but spuriously weighted mini-arguments, none of which amount to anything even approaching a point. And I feel slightly guilty, as though perhaps: a) I’m missing something, probably by failing to be relativistic enough (even though two pages ago Chuck told me this was inevitably meaningless); b) my opinions on a subject with which I am (for once) actually acquainted are, if not invalid, certainly clichéd; and c) I’m putting too much stock into writing which doesn’t deserve it. As I often think when reading Vice, there’s a difference between looking at something in a new way and simply being reflexively counter-intuitive in an effort to be interesting for a page or so—automatically stating the opposite of the obvious is no more meaningful than automatically stating the obvious, even if it generally makes for a more interesting read.

I like Chuck’s writing, and when he’s good, he’s good, but he really needs some themes. A childish definition of themes would be “things many people have in common”, and sometimes it feels as though Chuck’s so much of an outsider (and so in love with this stance) that, not only is he incapable of finding anything in common with anyone beyond the odd CD, he also wouldn’t want to admit it even if he did.

Man, I’m a bit harsh today. The first essays are a lot better, too. Especially when you’ve had a few beers.

What I learnt

That the Left Behind series was even more popular than I’d heard.

That this was shelved under Sociology, and not Rock (as promised in the Borders catalogue computer). I don’t think it fits in either, to be honest.

In short

Title: Sex And Drugs And Cocoa Puffs
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Publisher: Scribner
ISBN: 0743236017
Year published: 2004
Pages: 272
Genre(s): Music, Non-fiction

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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Comments

An ironic mishmash of a book, not sure about the design or flow but certainly entertaining in places.