There was a time when I really, really liked Chuck Klosterman. Admired him, even. When I wanted to read everything he wrote. When I highlighted passages from his books for nobody’s benefit but my own. When I wanted to write just like him and wear old ratty sweaters and grow a beard to hide my – as The Kids In The Hall put it – puffy, compromising face. I was 18.
In those days I would get drunk and stoned and talk about how, “qua Moretti,” vampires are capitalistic and zombies were anarchic. I wrote a 65-page academic paper about theories of value in rock criticism called Towards A Theory Of Listening To Metal Machine Music In Your Car. One time I gave a seminar about the treatment of poodles in the music of Frank Zappa, in which I almost definitely used the term gesamtkuntswerk. This is to say that I get Chuck Klosterman. I get the urge to want to burrow into pop culture and confuse the ability to be clever about it with actually creating meaning.
When I think about this now, I cringe. And a decade later, reading a Chuck Klosterman book – his latest, I Wear The Black Hat, a book that bills itself as “grappling with villains (real and imagined)” – is the furthest thing from a pleasure or an excitement. It’s a trial. As you get older, reading a Chuck Klosterman book becomes a gauge of your ability to weather a Chuck Klosterman book. Or, as an acquaintance of mine said, a gauge of your ability to see how far you can chuck a Klosterman book.
Today, reading Klosterman feels like being snookered by some Three-card Monte grifter. He nestles a notion inside a reference – say, cartoon bad guy Snideley Whiplash – then starts shuffling some other references around it – Joe Paterno, Machiavelli, this is all in the first chapter – and expects that the reader will follow along as he transposes his idea from one subject to the next, without actually bothering to clarify the idea itself. Eventually he arrives at conclusions that he himself acknowledges as banal.
In the essay Easier Than Typing, he creates a scenario in which Batman is real, then compares that fake-real Batman to fake Charles Bronson in Death Wish and then to real-life NYC vigilante Bernard Goetz, who shot four black teenagers on a New York City subway train in 1984. After however many meditations on why we root for Batman or Bronson but not so much Goetz, Klosterman concludes that “[t]he reason things unacceptable in life are acceptable in fiction is because fiction is often the only way we can comfortably examine the morally obscene.” Before we can even say “duh,” he goes on: “We can appreciate detestable things in fiction because those detestable things didn’t happen to anyone who’s actually alive. It’s as straightforward as that. A child can understand it.”
The jumble, the gamesmanship, is the whole point. Reading it, there’s this needy sense that we’re supposed to be agog at some quirky mind doing its thing, pulling reference points and subject matter from varying altitudes on the high/low spectrum and pretending to grind an idea through them. He’ll start sentences like, “[o]n the surface, this is pretty straightforward,” slo-pitching argumentative softballs at himself so he can pretend to clobber them out of the park with some needlessly lavish, and finally pointless, pop theorizing.
The Batman/Bronson/Goetz chapter opens like this: “Let’s pretend Batman is real. [I’m aware that this opening is enough to stop a certain kind of person from reading any further. It could be the opening line from an episode of Community that references a previous episode of Community. But that’s life. That’s how it goes.]”
“That’s life”? “That’s how it goes”? What does that even mean? What is the substance of the sentiment? It’s like it’s there to effect nothing more than a shrug from the reader, like “Sure, okay, go on.” Klosterman acknowledges that it’d be bad (or perceived as bad, at least by “a certain kind of person”) if he started a chapter with, “Let’s pretend Batman is real.” But it’s supposed to be permissible because he’s acknowledging and is “aware” of it being bad.
This is duplicitous, and I think totally immature. It seems to suggest there’s an inherent ridiculousness in caring about pop culture, and so compensates for appearing ridiculous by working really hard to appear smart. It’s as if Chuck Klosterman isn’t so much growing or maturing as bending inside himself, disappearing up his own naval. Instead of writing lively think-pieces about pop culture, he’s now writing dull, mediated pieces about how he thinks about thinking about pop culture. This is pop intellectualism in infinite regress, cold and closed-off, bad DeLillo.
Bafflingly, insultingly, Klosterman ends his formless essay collection by basically articulating all of this, saying that he has “come to believe that overcoming this self-focused worldview is impossible, and that life can be experience only through an imaginary mirror that allows us to occupy the center of a story no one is telling.”
In aid of this mawkishly soul-crushing wrap-up – the only ending he could possibly reach – Klosterman invokes David Foster Wallace’s now legendary (to a certain kind of person, anyway) Kenyon College commencement address. There, Wallace made a firm, heartfelt and, most of all, meaningful point that the greatest gift of life was consciousness. Not necessarily self-consciousness, but just plain ol’ meat-and-potatoes consciousness: “The really important kind of freedom [that] involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
Klosterman doesn’t think that this – that doing the constant, steady, thankless work of suppressing self-absorption to extend yourself, as a free-thinking human person, into the world – is “feasible.” He thinks that “people can pretend to do it, but they can’t pretend to themselves.”
Klosterman arrives at the most noxious and infantile of conclusions: that the main character of his own life is neither hero nor villain, that the human mind is literally incapable “of getting outside” its own box, even when you don’t bother to try. But this was exactly Wallace’s point. It may well be impossible. The point is to try.
John Semley’s writing has appeared in NOW Magazine, The AV Club, Salon, Esquire, Maisonneuve and elsewhere.