12 July 2017

Author Spotlight: Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman made me feel smart, and for that reason he will always hold a special place on my bookshelf. He's one of those writers young people (pre-university, early undergrad) tend to flock to, and I think he did a tremendous job of getting me really into the personal essay format. I almost feel defensive whenever I bring his name up, but I wish I didn't. He's an excellent pop-culture writer, and was probably the first person to ever make me care about a sports story.

Do I owe my new-found love of sports narratives to Chuck Klosterman??

Also, I learned a lot about each of these books after watching this hour-long North Dakota public broadcast on YouTube. You should check it out.

As usual, the order of these books is based on publication date.

Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota (2001)

The worst thing about Klosterman is probably his deep passion for hair-metal bands. This was one of those books that I would never be interested in reading but felt I had to so that I could say I've read every single thing the author has published. I remember thinking only two notable things came out of this book for me: Klosterman talking about his relentless boozing in university and his disgust for anyone who claims a dolphin is an intelligent being.

Booze is the greatest of all equalizers. Rich drunks and poor drunks both pass out the same way."

I remember being particularly interested in the stuff about his boozing because he mentioned he would drink over the sink because he knew he would probably puke. I don't think I ever had a single night of drinking without vomiting the night of and the entire next morning. I also use to drink over a sink.

I also often think about this weird epilogue he wrote for the book (or potentially a new footnote in the softcover edition) where he talks about how much criticism he got for including the stuff about drinking in university.. It sort of made me cringe because I hate when authors feel they have to defend themselves in a new edition of the book. This also happens in Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation and in Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air.

I will take this time to mention that Klosterman (often?) uses the word "retard" in his writing (though I think this was more a thing in his earlier work) which makes me cringe (re: the dolphin quote).

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto (2003)

Ahhhh, don't we all have a copy of this book? This is easily Klosterman's most famous book and you can't help but praise whatever publishing team came up with the name (Klosterman has gone on record saying he didn't choose the title and pushed really hard for something completely different). I love the first two essays.

"This is Emo," the opening essay where Klosterman rails against his ex-girlfriends obsession with John Cusack, is that sort of thing that really, really attacks you when you're young. It's all about the "fake love" we see in movies and spend the rest of our early twenties thinking we are missing out on.

But whenever I meet dynamic, nonretarded Americans, I notice that they all seem to share a single unifying characteristic: the inability to experience the kind of mind-blowing, transcendent romantic relationship they perceive to be a normal part of living."

He talks about Monica and Chandler, Harry and Sally, and all the other relationships we wish we had.

I want fake love. But that's all I want, and that's why I can't have it."

The other essay that always comes to mind when I think about this book is "Billy Simm." I remember laughing out loud while reading this even though I never played the Simms as a kid. At this stage in my life I would say I probably identify with Billy Simm more than anything else ... I've developed a shopping addiction that can't seem to fill the black hole that is my life. Materialism is something Billy is struggling with too.

Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story (2005)

This will always be my favourite Klosterman book. I usually read it once a year and it has ALWAYS acted as a source of comfort for me whenever I was dealing with a breakup. It is the kind of book that makes you want to be single, but also to fall in love with 30 different people.

Klosterman pitches a rock and roll road trip to his editors at Spin magazine (which I once had a subscription to for an entire year just because he used to work there). The premise of the trip is that he will visit the graves, or place of death, of a bunch of famous musicians, all the while discussing the relationship between fame and death. But what really happens is that we are taken through his three "pivotal" relationships with Lenore, Quincy and Diane.

I was obsessed with Lenore. I wanted to be her so badly.

I do not like the current image of Lenore's life; I don't like the idea of her not watching movies and not dating local farmers and listening to Ryan Adams in the dark."

This book is also cool as hell because Klosterman actually meets his future wife on this trip (it isn't one of the core three)! The woman he describes as a drunken Uma Thurman is actually pop-culture writer, and mother of his son, Melissa Maerz. He has a written account of the first time he ever met his wife. COOL EH?

Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (2006)

This book contains the first sports-related piece of writing I ever enjoyed. Little did I know I would eventually be 25 and reading long-form athlete features 8 hours a day..

"Bonds vs. America" made me realize sports narratives could be very, very interesting. This essay is about how Barry Bonds' home-run record surpassed Babe Ruth's, but this accomplishment left many uneasy because of Bonds' association with using steroids. Later in life I would become obsessed with any athlete who used performance enhancement drugs (most notable Lance Armstrong). But what drew me to this story was Klosterman linking this incident to disenchantment:

This is a problem. [...] It's a problem for anyone who considers sports to be a meaningful prism through which to understand life and culture. It's a problem for future historians, which means it's a problem for us right now. The problem is this: It's an achievement of disenchantment. And that applies to pretty much everyone involved, including you."

He talks about what statistics mean to sports, and the "idea" of Babe Ruth and what he meant to baseball. He essentially takes a sports narrative and tells you how it reflects your own life. I remember saying over and over "yeah, but the essay isn't really about baseball!"

The other part I loved about this book was it was Klosterman's first published attempt at fiction writing. The last section of the book titled "Something that isn't true at all" features his novella called You Tell Me. I remember being very taken with it ... thinking it was the sort of half depressed life that would make me more interesting. I was jealous of the day drinking, bad sex, and all that apathy.

This would eventually lead to Klosterman's first novel, Downtown Owl.

Chuck Klosterman
Downtown Owl: A Novel (2008)

My boyfriend tells me this book was apparently very poorly received. I think reading Klosterman's comment below should change anyone's mind. 

It expresses what I always think about when Downtown Owl comes to mind. About how finally we have characters that didn't seem too far out of reach, they weren't depressed because of any cataclysmic reason like a dead child or traumatic experience, they were just small-town people who were depressed because being alive is depressing.

I wanted to write about people who were depressed, but not depressed for any kind of specific cataclysmic reason. I mean the high school kid is kind of abstractly depressed, which I think is what a lot of people feel like. It's not like they have anything bad about their lives and if you were to ask them if they were depressed, they'd probably say no."

Eating the Dinosaur (2009)

This book I can hardly remember, and I'm sure it's not because it wasn't good, it's just that I only read it once and I did so eight years ago. All I can remember is there being an ABBA essay and also one about time travel.

The Visible Man (2011)

This book is another novel and is about being a voyeur. The main character develops this suit that retracts light, but essentially makes you "appear invisible." He uses this suit to watch people in their homes so that he can see who they truly are - no one's guard is up, nothing is constructed, it's just human beings acting as they would when they are completely alone. He describes these experiences to a psychiatrist.

Listening to that YouTube video I posted above made me 10 times more interested in this book than I was after reading it. And I honestly really enjoyed reading it. In the interview Klosterman says this of the main character:

He starts talking about the failings of film and the idea that when you see a movie, no film can be a real portrait of reality because if an intellectual person saw a real depiction of reality they would be offended. They would see sort of people dealing with casual racism and casual sexism all the time. They would be fulfilling stereotypes we'd like to believe don't exist."

It's about how people love to have their actions broadcasted, they crave being evaluated and interpreted. It's why we spend alone time posting on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram. This isn't an "anti-social media" book though. It's funny, thought provoking, creepy, and often times, sad.

I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined) (2013)

I love this book. He mentions in the prologue that of course you assume he will just go chapter-by-chapter telling you why the villains we've come to know aren't actually villains, but that this isn't how he plans to organize the book at all. Each essay deals with the subject in a completely different way.

In "Arrested for Smoking" he talks about how good looks affect how we see "criminals" or "wrong-doers." In this chapter he talks a lot about Ted Bundy and how he escaped from authorities like twice because they treated him differently than other prisoners.

My favourite essay is "Hitler Is in the Book," which is about how Hitler symbolically represents the most "evil" person ever known, and that this is something EVERYONE agrees on. This essay opens up with him reflecting on all the personal and professional advice he got about this topic and how everyone essentially begged him not to write about Hitler, but that how can you write a book about villains without mentioning Hitler.

This book is one of his latest, but honestly it ranks so high in his "discography," it tackles the concept of a villain in so many different ways, and each approach to the topic is more interesting than the last.

As JJ famously said on The Bachelorette, "A villains gotta vill."

But What If We're Wrong: Thinking about the Present as if it were the Past (2016)

This book was one of the first reviews I wrote for this blog. If you read it, I make it clear that I didn't really like it, but that I knew going in it wouldn't be based on a theme I'd find interesting.

As I was writing this I sort of realized how big of an effect Klosterman had on me as a reader. I found myself giving myself word limits for each section, and trying to keep it more to the point. But going back through some of these essays its clear that he has really shaped me into a reader who LOVES a long-form sports story. And this is something I will always be grateful for, no matter how old I am.

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