I’m familiar with Chuck Klosterman’s work from reading Chuck Klosterman IV and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I have not, however, read what is probably the most pertinent work in this case—Fargo Rock City—though I am familiar with Klosterman’s predilection for the Midwest (North Dakota especially) as a narrative theme. His consistent juxtaposition of the urban sensibilities of the hyperliterate and the trendy with the inherent backwardness of small Midwestern towns is both a little old and still remarkably effective.
Downtown Owl is Klosterman’s first full-length work of fiction. He doesn’t suffer from the sort of stilted or overwritten prose that afflicts so many budding writers, mostly because he isn’t a budding writer. In fact, it’s surprising—though it shouldn’t be—how Klosterman manages to make his narration feel so similar to one of his many cultural commentaries from previous books and magazines. There was some small part of me that expected him to turn into Patrick Bateman and start reviewing 1980s albums in the middle of the rising action.
What I can’t quite shake about Downtown Owl is Klosterman’s practiced insouciance as a narrator. He is, he’s taken great pains to show us over the years, painfully hip. He manages in this book to hold the characters at arm’s length so that he can describe them and pontificate (in a roundabout, expository way) about their archetypes. In this way, he creates characters that are two-dimensionally complex, but which have no apparent depth and inspire no empathy on the part of the reader. If Klosterman doesn’t appear to care about any of the characters, then I can’t either.
Perhaps that’s the point. Downtown Owl was never a story so much as a tableau of Klosterman’s reimagined North Dakotan town. There’s a collection of characters who do thing and think things, but there’s no central plot, no narrative movement toward something; it’s a limited character drama that ends with a single shared event that ties—loosely and impersonally and by virtue of location only—these disparate characters together. Actually, think of the movie Magnolia; now set it in a small North Dakotan town in the 1980s and you’ve got Downtown Owl. The movie, however, managed to create much more likable and interesting characters (at least their personal dramas were somehow resolved or mutated by the movies events).
Despite it being, technically, a fictional book, Downtown Owl was much more a series of interwoven vignettes that simply served as a vehicle for Klosterman to talk about subjects he’s already covered—North Dakota, 80s rock and metal, social archetypes, &c. I feel a bit cheated, as there was really nothing in this book was wasn’t in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs in some form or another. Klosterman’s a good writer, but I don’t understand what motivated him to write a work of fiction: he’s a much better essayist than he is a storyteller.