Monday, June 18, 2007

A Sordid Confession

I just finished Chuck Klosterman's latest book, IV. What's worse, not only did I finish it, I invested a fair amount of time and resources in doing so, repeatedly checking for its appearance in the catalog of my local library, placing it on hold when it finally was available, checking (also repeatedly) to see how much time remained before the previous borrower would have to return it, even wondering aloud how it was possible to take over a month to read a Chuck Klosterman book (I can only assume this person left their bong on top of IV and lost track of it for six weeks or so). Finally it was my turn to check it out, so I paid my $1.50, tossed it in my backpack, and finished it over the course of the next day.

I guess this is sordid because Chuck Klosterman has reached a point in his career where New York Magazine would place him at BACKLASH on the Undulating Curve of Shifting Expectations, never to ascend again to the heights of BACKLASH TO THE BACKLASH. Despite the apparent existence of devoted MySpace handmaidens who want to have his babies, Klosterman has inspired hatred in a substantial sector of the taste-making journalistic public, from the highbrow to the lowbrow to the soi-dis(t)ant hipsters who adored him in the first place. And it's not that their complaints fall on deaf ears (this one, in particular, seems more than warranted). However, until recently, I discounted most criticism of Klosterman, because a) much of it comes from writers who resent the relative unpopularity of their own work and b) Klosterman himself seems pretty honest about the nature of his, um, accomplishments. Here is, after all, a guy who is perfectly content to admit when he's wrong, who characterizes his own work as "solipsistic," "self-absorbed" and "just [about] things that are entertaining to myself," and who recognizes the improbability of his rapid ascent to success, notwithstanding the fact that he spent eight years writing for local newspapers. In addition, there's a generous amount of Midwestern snobbery in this criticism, the implication that referencing one's background or pointing out its quirks and idiosyncrasies makes you a posturing fake -- if you're a member of the Great Unwashed Masses between New York and California, that is. Mark Ames takes issue with a passage from Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, in which Klosterman describes his college days at North Dakota as follows: "We would sit in the living room, drink a case of Busch beer, and throw the empty cans into the kitchen for no reason whatsoever, beyond the fact that it was the most overtly irresponsible way for any two people to live." Ames seems to think that this is Klosterman pandering to the Manhattan quasi-intellectual elite, playing "the hick equivalent of an Oreo;" I think it's a pretty accurate description of college life in the upper Midwest, far from any city of note. I mean, instead of empty cans of Busch in the kitchen, my roommates and I used to routinely find/leave cigarette butts on the floor. But far be it from Ames to accept that Klosterman is onto something, as silly and puerile as it may be.

And that's why I enjoyed Klosterman's writing. Sure, sometimes he was just wrong, and sometimes the his joint-in-one-hand, pen-in-other style of criticism showed its seams. His subject matter may have been inconsequential, self-absorbed, or just plain bad, but rarely did he wrap it up without displaying some genuine wit or unearthing an observation that was startling or fresh in some way. I wouldn't have said it was anything deeper than "amusing," but amusement is great in between bouts of Serious Reading. I also admired Klosterman's seeming-unpretention about what he does ("Hey! I write about stuff I like and plus, I get paid for it! Sweet!") as well as his ability to pinpoint what is fascinating about various kinds of dreck. In a culture that is full of it, surely this is a skill not without worth.

Until recently, that is. I started to feel uneasy during Killing Yourself To Live. We get it, Chuck, the ladies like you. You touched on that in your last book. Now, about the import of tragic sudden death on a musician's career. . . . ? It seemed that Klosterman had misread the Venn diagram that guides his work, stumbling from the overlap of "things that are entertaining to a lot of people (even if they are embarrassed to admit it)" and "things that are entertaining to myself" into the unshaded wilds of "things that are entertaining (only) to myself." The trademark funny was still there, but Killing Yourself to Live ended up being a sort of gross hookup manual from a Charlie Brown lookalike who took himself and his love life pretty seriously -- seriously enough to write a book about it, at least.

And that's where the problem arises. Part of Chuck Klosterman's charm had previously been that he didn't appear to care if you took him seriously or not. He was just a guy writing about KISS, and he loved KISS, and if you didn't, fine, but he was going to make you laugh at least once before you finished the essay and said to yourself, "Sure, but KISS still sucks." I'll reference this sensibility as the slacker aesthetic (or alternately, the stoner aesthetic), and its success depends on both the reader's perception of the writer's investment in the material and the material itself . As long as the reader perceives the writer's investment to be minimal and the subject matter to be random or beneath explication ("Hey, I just write what comes into my head about The Real World, and I barely even edit it"), then the results will always be serendipitously pleasant and the slacker aesthetic is upheld. But if the reader begins to suspect that the writer is actually committed to the subject matter -- i.e. that he wants to be right about it or unearth something true or eloquent rather than just happen upon something amusing-- or if the material has a priori value of its own, then the stakes are raised.

And now we come to IV, which is comprised almost exclusively of essays and interviews that were previously published elsewhere. As such, it doesn't deviate substantially from the style of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, and is better for it. The interviews are solid, and many of the essays toe the slacker line with Klosterman's characteristic sensibility -- "Television," an hour-by hour account of 24 hours spent watching VH1 Classic being an exemplar of the genre. However, there are two moments in IV that capture exactly what is unsettling about Chuck Klosterman, two instances in which he makes clear his desire to be taken seriously and to move beyond the slacker aesthetic.

In a sense IV is Klosterman's heady foray into the Great Unknown, because the only piece in it that wasn't previously published elsewhere is a short story called "You Tell Me." Essentially then, IV is Klosterman's debut fiction effort. "You Tell Me" is about a drug-abusing North Dakotan film critic named Jack who works for an Akron, Ohio newspaper. Most of the story relates Jack's PCP-fueled reactions to the events of his workday. Klosterman writes in the introduction that some details in the story are "not-so-loosely autobiographical." Ten four there, good buddy, as most devoted Klosterman readers will recognize that many, many of Jack's habits are Chuck's as well. Which is fine, notwithstanding Jack's repeated references to himself as a "genius" or a "pretty awesome writer."

What is not fine, and what sort of gives the game away for Klosterman later, is this mention of Dave Eggers, in a separate essay about the "pirate renaissance" we're apparently enjoying of late: " . . . perhaps most curious, post-ironic literary whiz kid Dave Eggers has opened a pirate store in San Francisco. I'm completely serious about this; it's a store that sells authentic pirate paraphernalia (and also doubles as a grade-school tutoring center)." Am I wrong in detecting a fair amount of passive-aggressive snark in this comment?* Calling a 33 year-old Pulitzer-prize nominated author a "whiz kid" seems, well, infantilizing, and the interjection of "I'm completely serious about this" needlessly trivializes the center, whose admirable purpose is only referred to parenthetically. "Post-ironic" -- sounds like someone else, doesn't it? Oh yeah, Chuck Klosterman. At first, why Chuck Klosterman would have a beef with Dave Eggers is beyond comprehension, until we remember that yes, Klosterman is now also a writer of autobiographical fiction. But you wouldn't think that Klosterman took his fiction seriously enough to consider Dave Eggers a rival, would you? This is Moment Number One, when all the references Klosterman has made to writing fiction in the past come to mind and you realize that yes, he kind of does.

Which in and of itself is not too slimey! The desire for one's work, especially one's creative work, to be taken seriously is not despicable at all. But once that's clear, the writer has to do more than rely on first person experience and some droll drug anecdotes to make their point, because the writer is no longer working under the slacker/stoner aesthetic. They are invested in their writing.

But first person experience and blackout stories are all Klosterman has. This leads us to Moment Number 2, one of many and selected only because it is so representative. Klosterman is writing about his experience buying a complete outfit off of a Gap mannequin and wearing it, intact, the next day. (Oddly, he also wears it on the jacket of the book.) "I start walking to work, and I can tell that everything about my life is instantly reinvented. I feel like a mannequin. And this feeling is fascinating, because I have no idea how a mannequin is supposed to feel; without even trying, I'm instantaneously projecting my fictionalized assumption about how it feels to be an inanimate object onto myself." What exactly does that mean, anyway? It sounds very apt, yet paradoxical, a bit perplexing. Well, it's perplexing because Klosterman is using the word "fictionalized" incorrectly. It's not a "fictionalized" assumption; the assumption hasn't been made into a story.** Really, it's just an assumption, Klosterman's uninformed guess about what an object feels like. But using the word "fictionalized" makes the whole line of reasoning sound deep without actually expending too much effort describing it correctly (Don't even get me started on the "instantaneously.") It's lazy and thoughtless. It's Moment Two, and despite Klosterman's palpable desire to be a Serious Writer of Real Ideas, there are many like it. For example: "Does it [wearing a mannequin's outfit] deconstruct one's identity and reconstruct it as commentary?" No, Klosterman, I think it just shows that you know how to use the words "deconstruct," "reconstruct," and "identity." Which is a good start, but it still means you're a slacker. And I am too, but I'm not sticking up for Chuck Klosterman anymore.

* I may be, actually. It was a reading with Dave Eggers that ultimately landed Klosterman his
Spin gig and second book deal, so surely he holds him in some degree of regard.
** Inasmuch as the events in this essay are supposed to have really taken place.


Tom said...

Wow. That's waaay more of an investment in time and energy than a one-note assclown like Klosterman deserves. Fargo Rock City had its moments, but it was all downhill from there. It's kind of fitting that Klostomy is the Bush era's answer to Legs McNeil and Lester Bangs - diminished expectations, etc... YAWN

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, of course, Chuck only could have gotten his Spin gig from meeting Dave Eggers, and not, say, on the merits of Fargo Rock City.

For the record, his second book came out a year into his Spin tenure. Also, is not highbrow. It is the work of a highly functional mental defective.

The Cajun Boy said...

i'm actually reading chuck klostermann IV right now. i'm with you in many respects...the dude is alternately brilliant and repugnant at times. the britney spears piece had me with tears in my eyes. overall, i haven't soured yet. i will continue to read the guy. i think that alot of the literary vitriol being spewn at him is just born out of jealousy. the dude toiled in obscurity for a long time before making a great career for himself. props to him for that.

riese said...

I enjoyed Sex Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, which I gifted my younger brother for his B-day last year and he really enjoyed it. I usually like what he does in Esquire, too. He's pretty easy to hate, but I think that because--like Klosterman, I'm a Midwesterner who writes about dumb things and thinks to much about herself but mentions constantly that I know I'm writing about self-centered dumb things--I tend to take his side, usually. [Of course, obvs I'm not sucessful like him, that's one of many differences, but I think aspirants tend to develop defensive affinity for people who do things they imagine themselves doing one far away day] I didn't read the books you refer to, but it certainly seems like Rule 1 of Self-Centered Young Male Writers Club is "don't talk about the other guys."

claire said...

Hi Ruth,
My boyfriend stumbled upon this site and brought it to my attention -- as I too moved to NZ from NYC! I'm no longer in NZ (so sadly), but this blog is the perfect treat for my sorely-missing-all-things-kiwi soul. Feel free to check out my blog if you have the time and inclination:
Have a wonderful time in NZ, and keep up the great blog!
Kia ora,

matty said...

Wow, are you the type of person that came out of "dude where's my car" and complained how stupid it was? Klosterman is junk food reading. I'm a huge fan, but I don't take it seriously what-so-ever. Perhaps you need to chill the hell out and laugh at some lolcats

peace out homie

Ruth said...

Tom/Cajun -- You're both sorta right. . . as it happens, I have more time on my hands than most people.
Anon -- That's just what this article seems to indicate. For the record, I read You're not Ed, are you?
Riese -- Yeah, I'm from Illinois and lived in Minnesota for 4 years. The Midwestern thing excuses a multitude of sins for me too.
Claire -- I will! Hearing from people like you is why I still keep this blog.
matty -- I love lolcats.

notreallythere said...

Your points are well-argued. Honestly I think the thing that folks have a hard time pinning down about Chuck is that it's the singer, not the song. If you find his style appealing (which I do) you forgive a lot (which I ordinarily don't). It's kind of like having a friend who seems constantly at social and political odds with you but, at the end of the day, would still jump through a fiery hoop for you and so you'll always love them for that reason. Bad analogy?

-Matt G.