You may recall that I read Klosterman’s 2003 work, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, at the end of last year’s meme. At the time, my views on Klosterman’s work was about as divided as critical reception to his collected essays.
One need hardly speculate that this new book of Klosterman’s would be much the same; if anything, it’s a bit inconsistent by comparison, since it’s a collections of articles spanning a decade. Most of the first section is articles from his days at SPIN; the second is articles from Esquire; the third is a piece of short fiction that he wrote (apparently a while ago). Each story is introduced by a short blurb that gives it historical or personal context.
His pieces for SPIN go something like this: “Rockstar X or Moviestar Y have dimensions to their character around which I will formulate a fundamental theory of culture; despite this revelation, I remain socially maladroit.”
His pieces for Esquire tend to be more intellectually stimulating, usually dealing with things like legacy (e.g., why there will never be a shared cultural experience like Johnny Carson ever again) or intersections of culture.
The short fiction piece is, frankly, an unimpressive piece of thin metaphor, interesting perhaps only for the intended repugnance of the main character.
Here, I suppose, is my problem with Chuck Klosterman: he’s obviously a very smart guy, and well-educated (or at least well-read), but he’s a pop culture apologist. In Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, he explained to the world his infatuation with and the cultural importance of MTV’s The Real World. In other words, he spends most of his time telling me why he thinks shitty things aren’t all that shitty after all. Despite his posturing, I’m not convinced. Neither, it seems, is Klosterman, whose introductions to many stories seem to cast doubt on the validity of whatever premise he worked upon when originally writing the article. Some have withstood the test of time better than others: the quality of Chuck Klosterman IV is a pretty jagged line graph.
I can’t help but think that Klosterman is like a low-rent David Foster Wallace1. He has the ability to draw interesting conclusions from relatively ordinary phenomena, but Wallace’s philosophical arcs are grander, his prose more eloquent, and his topics less incendiary if for no other reason than he doesn’t venture very far into the realm of pop culture2. Klosterman, by contrast, is shorter, less grandiose, more centrally-defined, and infinitely more digestible: a “smart” writer for people who watch MTV a lot.
Klosterman is becoming an icon of our “postmodern culture” (Patterson’s words) for at least two reasons: He writes the way his readership speaks and thinks (or at least the way they aspire to speak and think), and he creatively examines pop iconography so as to draw from it a greater meaning about American culture. He’s the contemporary King of Pop Semiotics.
I can’t argue with Klosterman’s intelligence; nor can I argue with the assertion that he’s probably one of the most influential columnists of his generation. I do, however, have reservations about some of his methods, some of his logic, some of his conclusions, and, like Johnson, wonder “if the audience questions his assertions.” If Klosterman teaches us anything, it’s that we should, but as a cultural critic, I can imagine he seems imbued with a distant or invulnerability from the he critiques. Certainly, we know he’s not.
- I thought this especially when Klosterman, about to do a piece about a cruise ship, bristles at every one of the ‘six thousand’ people who tell him that Wallace already wrote the definitive cruise ship article. cf. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again[↩]
- The rights of lobsters are a one-sided argument compared to, say, the relative merits of heavy metal bassists from the 80s.[↩]