11 June 2020

X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century by Chuck Klosterman


I got this book as a gift a few years ago and finally decided to pick it up when I realized it included an interview with Jonathan Franzen. X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century felt like the perfect quarantine read because of how broken up it is. I usually don't run towards anthologies, and I was pretty open in my dislike for Klosterman's latest book, but he continues to be my favourite essay writer and this one definitely didn't disappoint.

Klosterman's compilation was put together in 2017 but combines essays he wrote over the last 15 years. Nothing felt dated but it was pretty surreal to read a 2015 profile of Kobe Bryant who died tragically at the beginning of 2020. Still, Klosterman has always been good at taking something incredibly time sensitive (like water-cooler TV hits, old championships, etc) and making you think about them through a broader lens.

Klosterman is also uniquely talented at making you invest in something you thought you didn't care about. Before I loved basketball (or respected any sport really) I enjoyed Klosterman's sports writing, all dating back to his article on Barry Bonds. I mention this because a lot of the essays in this collection are about musicians, and even though I find musicians intolerable I still found myself breezing through the interviews. Klosterman interviewed the people you'd expect like Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen, but also included sit-downs with Noel Gallagher of Oasis, Taylor Swift, and the guy from Pavement.


This it seems, is the real explanation as to why Noel is different from Liam (and always will be). Liam denies his hangovers and sues people for joking about them; Noel confesses his hangovers and will shake hands with anyone. And when you've been in a band that's been drunk for twenty years, that difference tells you everything you need to know."

I don't want this review to be too ungodly long, but I will cover the essays I found most worthwhile below:

"I Will Choose Free Will (Canadian Reader's Note: This Is Not About Rush)"

I absorb hours of TV every night and then spend all morning listening to podcasts recapping them. This essay is about the "Big Four" on the small screen - The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. I have only seen Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but I'm currently making my way through The Wire with a podcast companion, and watching The Sopranos (season five baby!) with Ben during quarantine.

He spends most of the essay comparing how each show deals with morality. Other then Mad Men, the shows all deal with extreme violence, but Klosterman mentions how Breaking Bad differentiates itself from the others in suggesting that morality is continually a personal choice. He uses this great quote from creator Vince Gilligan where he says:


Television is historically good at keeping its characters in a self-imposed stasis so that shows can go on for years or even decades. When I realized this, the logical next step was to think, how can I do a show in which the fundamental drive is towards change? [...] So I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to have a show that takes the protagonist and transforms him into the antagonist?"

The essay made me happy I watched Mad Men and Breaking Bad as they were released, and excited to fill my blind spots with The Sopranos and The Wire.

Chuck Klosterman - a different picture than we usually use!
"Speed Kills (Until It Doesn't)"

This essay is about the fastest man on earth and Usaine Bolt's world-record 9.58 second 100-meter dash. The crux of it is whether or not professionals think Bolt's record will ever be beaten, and how human performance will change as science/medicine continues to make advancements. I have been thinking about this essay a ton since reading it and have asked a few people if they think a faster time is possible.

Most experts seem to believe it is humanely impossible to run the 100-meter faster than 9.0 seconds. There is this great section in the essay where a sprinter says he believes he could run a 9.4 and thinks the record will one day be 9.2, saying "that's only if people can grasp and believe it's possible. All about the mind." Klosterman forwards this response to a scientist who laughs and calls it "classic sprinter narcissism."

Still, this is a great essay for anyone interested in performance enhancers and the limits of athletic achievement.


A world record is the most extreme fringe of performance, and weird things happen at those fringes. I need to take off my scientist hat to make that statement and just speak as the Average Joe. But my gut feeling is that it will probably happen in our lifetime, and that feeling is driven by the incentives of modern sports."

"The Enemy of My Enemy Is Probably Just Another Enemy"

What happened to Kobe and his daughter is still so shocking and difficult to wrap my mind around. As I mentioned, this essay sent a bit of a chill down my spine especially when Klosterman brings up the sexual assault allegations and how they will effect his legacy: 

A year later, the charges were dropped and Bryant apologized. But the incident will (obviously) never go away. When Bryant dies, the accusation will probably appear in the second paragraph of his obituary. And he knows this."

Klosterman meets Kobe outside a cafe in an outdoor shopping mall. The two talk about a ton of different things. When asked if he watched the movie Whiplash Kobe replied "Of course. That's me." and Klosterman is left wondering whether he meant he's JK Simmons's character or Miles Teller's.



"A Road Seldom Traveled by the Multitudes"

Then imagine my pure joy when a Jonathan Franzen interview immediately follows the Kobe profile - perfectly combining my two favourite things. Klosterman mentions in the introduction before the essay that he felt weirdly uncomfortable doing this interview because they share the same vocation and yet seem like day-and-night in terms of talent.

I read every single thing I can on Franzen - obviously all of his books, but also interviews, profiles, and biographies. There's a moment when Klosterman asks a question that Franzen describes as astute, but he refuses to answer. Klosterman is curious so he asks again, but this time off the record:

During the three minutes my recorder is off, he provides one of the most straightforward, irrefutable, and downright depressing answers I've ever experienced in an interview. His posture changes and his language simplifies. Nothing is unclear. But once the red light returns, he rematerializes into the same truthful-but-withholding person I met at the train station."

Something else fairly "astute" in this essay is how Franzen replies when asked if he finds himself often worrying ... he replies with "I often worry about global pandemics."

This essay was also great because it gave me another thing to check out for more Franzen-insight. Apparently in the early 2000s Franzen's ex wife wrote an article about feeling envious of his literary success. You can find the lengthy article here.

And for the last essay I will mention ...

"White's Shadow"

I had no idea Klosterman profiled Royce White and I gasped when I started reading this essay. I had heard of Royce White a long time ago - an NBA drafted player who was so afraid of flying that he left the league (there's obviously a lot more detail to the story, including an OCD diagnosis, but I won't get into it). Klosterman met White and his friends at a Cheesecake Factory and talked about mental health and how it intersects with the league. Klosterman does a good job characterizing how pompous and strange White is, while also being incredibly passionate about the need for better mental health treatment. It was a quick and interesting read.

I really, really enjoyed this collection. The book is fairly hefty, coming in at ~450 pages. I read it in eight days! ... even the ten thousand word essay on KISS.

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