Because he’s Chuck Klosterman, and you’re not.
I’m chatting with Klosterman, the wordy pop-culturist who’s having a cola to go with his unavoidable red beard, in the bar of a Toronto boutique hotel. What are we talking about? We’re talking about Chuck Klosterman.
“It’s really difficult for someone to review my books without reviewing the idea of me,” he says, more or less stating a fact. His new book is I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined), an upbeat collection of essays on bad guys, from Snidely Whiplash and Hitler to Batman and Chevy Chase.
Klosterman first endeared himself to the with-it Nick Hornby crowd with 2001’s Fargo Rock City, a fresh, brainy rationalization of hair metal in the 1980s that took aim at music journalism elitism and finally gave Dr. Feelgood the level of respect warranted by its honorific. Within the 2003 collection of essays Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman celebrated Billy Joel, posited that the Dixie Chicks were the new Van Halen, went crazy for Kellogg’s and took a lightsaber to Star Wars.
When it came to breaking down pop culture, Klosterman was the force.
His popularity bred an inevitable backlash and his tone was too wiseacre for some. At some turning point, Klosterman was being dissected just like the pop culture he himself was examining. When the subject of a scathing review of his new book (recently received at the hands of a Globe critic) is brought up, Klosterman says the piece was “very strange.” (After its publication, the book’s publisher cancelled a second interview originally scheduled with this paper.) Klosterman himself doesn’t seem worried about the mixed reviews I Wear the Black Hat has received. Positive or negative, they’re all just advertisements anyhow.
“I’m in a weird position, in the sense that the people who tend to review my books tend to be versions of myself, but who aren’t in the position to write these books,” he explains. “So, in the same way that I use pop culture to work through problems in my mind, those people use my books to work through the problems in their minds.”
(And, it stands to reason, that other people then use the reviews of Klosterman’s books to work through the issues in their minds. It’s an intellectual food-chain thing.)
Certainly, the Globe review backs up Klosterman’s notion. The writer notes that when he was 18 he wanted to write like Klosterman and “wear old ratty sweaters and grow a beard to hide a puffy, compromising face.”
In I Wear the Black Hat, the issues of race, gender and class as they apply to the perception of villains are not addressed. “The book isn’t meant to be comprehensive,” says Klosterman of the 224-page tome. “I’m focusing on interesting characters and I’m not interested in the traditional point of views of why people have reactions. That’s a different book.”
So, no chapter on John Dillinger, the murdering bank robber who took from the rich and the poor and gave none away, but who was perceived as a Depression-era anti-hero rather than a villain by the great unwashed. No chapter either on why villains are most always men. And no essay on Kanye West, the hip-hop provocateur, Taylor Swift-bullier and Kim Kardashian impregnator. Not that Klosterman hasn’t given the man considerable thought.
“In any idiom, there is always one person who is doing, fundamentally, the same things that other artists are doing, but in a channel that is parallel to the rest,” he says, mentioning filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson and comedian Louis C.K. as other examples. “They’re not outsiders or experimental, but their aspirations and awareness are different.”
But West is abrasive and egomaniacal, where Anderson and C.K. are not. “It’s possible that Kanye isn’t a good person, but there are times when egomaniacal behaviour is justified,” Klosterman explains.
Which is true enough. Muhammad Ali was able to call himself the greatest because he was best fighter in the world. Perhaps West really is, as he charismatically asserted in a recent much-discussed New York Times sit-down, “the nucleus.” There are people disliked by some simply because they’re just so damn good – or at least recognized as such, and rewarded as if they were.
“My notoriety is higher than my success,” Klosterman says, as we get back to him. “I think I’m perceived to be a super-successful writer, but that’s not really the case.”
As we are about to part company, I bring up the New York Times review of I Wear the Black Hat by the articulate James Parker, who suggests that Klosterman is “the envy of every culture critic who ever tottered home from a Starbucks laptop session with his clothes smelling of caffeine and cremated ideas.”
Klosterman is aware of the envy. “That’s an issue for a lot of people,” he says. “They think, ‘Hey, I’m as smart as this guy, and I have opinions on Neil Young and I have opinions on The Sopranos, and I could do the same thing as this guy.’ And you know what? It’s true.”