Review: Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs

by Tom Ingram

If you take a look at the list of books I’ve reviewed, you’ll notice that it skews slightly toward science fiction and fantasy. Today we’re going to change that up a bit.

I first heard of Chuck Klosterman when I saw a couple of quotes from him on the Internet (yeah, I’m one of those people–I’ve got a pretty big list of quotations from various authors. You never know when it’ll come in handy). Klosterman is a very quoteable author. A couple times in every essay he says something you want to put on your fridge. The quotes turned out to be a microcosm of his writing. In a few short sentences he manages to make you laugh and make an insightful observation about the world effortlessly, without breaking stride.

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is a collection of essays about pop culture. Klosterman’s idea is that if you look deep enough into anything you can come up with insights about human nature. He just prefers the topics of reality TV, tribute bands, and Pamela Anderson. Everything connects, he says, and even the banal–especially the banal!–says something about us. A fitting epigraph for the book comes at the end of the introduction:

In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever “in and of itself”.

If you can stop laughing after he uses the word “transcendent” to describe the early reality show The Real World, you’ll notice that a lot of the points he makes are quite astute. The book opens strong with “This is Emo”, which explores real human relationships versus idealized fantasies like When Harry Met Sally.

Even when Klosterman is wrong, he’s still entertaining. There were times that I thought that he had it completely backwards, or he was missing a key piece of information. But he makes his points in a way that is fun to read and–this is important–clear.

Since this is a collection of essays, there is some disparity in quality. Most were excellent, but there were a couple tepid ones and a couple that were so completely wrong they’re hardly worth reading. The final essay, on the subject of the (hilariously awful) fundamentalist Christian novel Left Behind was disappointing. It was clear that Klosterman had quickly looked up a plot summary and the names of the authors and main characters and had only the most superficial familiarity with the series. The conclusions he draws are just stupid.

There’s also an uncanny feeling that this is all being written for somebody else. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is primarily aimed at people from a certain time in a certain place, and I’m not in that target audience. This is hard to get past at times, especially when he makes a broad statement that’s only true of his generation in the US and acts as if it’s a universal truth. Still, reading as an outsider and adjusting for his inaccuracy added a whole new facet to the Klosterman experience.

Whether he’s examining the concept of coolness its relationship to breakfast cereal mascots, or why everything we’ve been told about bias in the media is a lie, Klosterman is a funny writer who makes good observations. His “break it down and have a look” approach brings literary criticism to a whole new audience similar to the way TV Tropes does. This self-awareness changes the way we take in our culture and eventually changes the content of our culture, providing more fodder for more insights. Funny how that connects.

Nothing is ever “in and of itself”.

You can find Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs online at Chapters, McNally, or Amazon if you’re internationally inclined.