When it comes to pop-culture ephemera, Chuck Klosterman knows what you're thinking before you do. Scary, right?
In 2003, after Chuck Klosterman published a collection of pop-culture essays called Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Mark Ames, a New York Press book reviewer, wrote the following: "I have found the metaphor for everything vile in my generation, and its name is Chuck Klosterman." The review goes on to call Klosterman the Antichrist and suggests he should be "rotting in a death camp." It's a fascinating review. Really. You should Google it.
At the time I read this weird evisceration, I was not too familiar with Chuck Klosterman. I knew he was a successful journalist who wrote funny, quirky essays about The Real World and Saved by the Bell. As a less-successful journalist (who watched those shows but never bothered to string together two sentences about them), I didn't mind the suggestion that he was an overhyped fraud; it's best to keep the talent bar out there pretty low. Since then, Klosterman has gone on to even greater fame: He writes popular columns for Esquire and ESPN the Magazine and, until recently, Spin. Last year, he published Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, in which he traveled across America in a Ford Taurus, visiting famous rock-star death sites. And now comes an anthology of his previously published work called Chuck Klosterman IV. Get it? Kinda like Led Zeppelin IV. If you didn't hate him already, well, now you can.
Except that if you've actually read Chuck Klosterman, chances are you don't hate him. (If you're a New York Press book critic, all bets are off.) Chances are you find him to be likable and funny, a rather ingenious interpreter of lowbrow America. Unlike, say, David Foster Wallace, who can turn a story about game shows into some head-crunching master class on the human condition, Klosterman comes off less professorial or smug and more like the chatty guy standing near the keg with hundreds of theories about Smurfs and Michael Jackson. Is he right? Does it matter?
Well, maybe, although when I read his books (including the charming hair-metal memoir Fargo Rock City), I marvel at how often he articulates exactly how I feel about something even before I can, whether it be his clearheaded defense of Billy Joel or his observation upon visiting Graceland: "Twenty million Elvis fans can, in fact, be wrong." Even if I disagree with him, he generally persuades me to play along. Is this because I lack a strong moral center? Probably. But it's also because his stories are so fiercely observed and hilarious that, quite frankly, I don't really mind if he's just tossing out ideas.
For some people, Klosterman's pop-cultural hyperlinking can feel exhausting, if not cheap and superficial. But the fact is that many people, millions and millions of people, understand and talk about themselves through the vocabulary of television, music, video games, and sports. Klosterman just happens to be better at this than nearly anyone else. For him, the point is rarely whether or not he likes a piece of art in an easily definable way - thumbs-up or thumbs-down, rate this on a scale of one to four stars. The point is how that piece of ephemera helps make sense of his own life and, by extension, ours.
In Killing Yourself to Live, as he wanders from accidental drowning to plane crash to club fire, he spends much of the time ruminating about three failed romances. At one point, he argues that each of his exes represents a different member of Kiss. It's navel-gazing to the point of absurdity, but it's also a fairly accurate portrait of the obsessive American male.
His new book, Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas (Scribner, $25), is a compendium of celebrity profiles, personal essays, and assorted features he's written over the course of his career, first at newspapers in Fargo, North Dakota, and Akron, Ohio, and later at New York glossies. Such a massive compilation of jaunty observations about Morrissey and Britney Spears makes you wonder: Isn't this generational celebration of trash culture somehow dangerous? And that's a good question. Just wait till this episode of Real World/Road Rules Challenge ends, and I'll get back to you.