David Kordahl

Klosterman Agonistes

In Internet, Lit, Pop Culture on 2010/12/12 at 8:18 pm

Would-be writers, in general, harbour perversely intense relationships with people they’ve never met. I’m not speaking of the ‘healthy’ (or at least vocationally beneficial) relationships that the fictionist is expected to nurture with made-up characters. I’m speaking now of the relationship of the Fan with the Author—the Author who, in the case of the would-be writer, is a person said Fan would like to become. There are the famously well documented cases of such mania: Norman Mailer’s adulation of Ernest Hemingway; Nicholson Baker’s stalking of John Updike. I suppose that the best documentation of this syndrome is Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, the (perhaps deliberately) tedious novel/memoir that chronicles his dual obsessions with Frank Gifford and Edmund Wilson in more exhaustive detail than any reader could possibly request. Each of these anecdotes is passed on with a certain measure of self-deprecation and wry candour, due to the lofty reputations of such men as Hemingway, Updike, and Wilson, compared to those of their respective fanboys. So it is with some trepidation that I reveal one of the writers I’ve geekishly followed, at least retroactively, through his entire career: one Chuck Klosterman, a writer of celebrity profiles and heavy-metal tributes, an apparently unserious man who I’m slightly embarrassed to read, much less write about as a Fan. The reason I’ve been thinking about him again is that last week he published this in the NY Times, and, along with the tell-tale signs I spotted while reading his most recent book, Eating the Dinosaur, I’ve come to a (not so) shocking conclusion about this stalwart media enthusiast, my hero. Chuck Klosterman, I’ve decided, is sad.

But first, some background. Superficially, it might seem like Chuck and I are on two different sides of the rainbow in our approaches to reality: he’s a successful pop-culture analyst and rock critic, a man who has written essays claiming to have watched every episode of MTV’s The Real World at least 3 times; meanwhile, I study physics. But really superficially: we both came from North Dakota as youngsters, and like most people who emerge from that sort of experience as fully functioning adults not directly connected to agriculture or church, we both seem to have the sense that we’re in on some secrets about the Real America that the rest of Debased America has probably missed. (See, e.g., this interview.) Reading C.K., for me, is to discover of how I might have turned out without Mennonite school, missionary excursions, violin practice, etc. Klosterman is the embodiment of the slacker obsessive as self-promoter, of the metal-head who has made good. In his books, he’s written his own sort of Fan’s Notes to the mass media. To him, like some other rural mediamaniacs I’ve known, the existence of the crassly commercial mass-culture was less a cause for scorn and anger than it was a constant source of hope. To wit, any photo of Nikki Styx, Axl Rose, or KISS is proof positive that the entire world doesn’t mirror the normative blandness of North Dakota.

Chuck is madly prolific: he’s written 5 books of essays and a novel to date, and I’ve only read 3 ½ of them [1] (so far). Last summer, after purchasing the aforementioned Eating the Dinosaur, I went back to investigate his early career, and what I found as the unstated meta-narrative (to be pretentious, yes) is a gradual loss of faith in the goodness of the mass media. Not that he started out as a doe-eyed Believer, exactly, but it’s all by steps. His first book, Fargo Rock City, is a spirited defence of Heavy Metal, the cherished music of his youth. It wasn’t until near the end of that book that he delved into the details of how the media portrayal of the Rocker influenced his later life—specifically, that it led to his adult alcoholism (though believe me: his description of this is a lot funnier than my blunt statement of it). That chapter was the strongest section of FRC; I think the reader reaction to it taught him something about effective self-portrayal, because (skipping a book) by the time we get to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his 3rd, he’d gone through a personalising tonal shift. Here’s the first sentence: “No woman will ever satisfy me.” The reason? Media-induced expectation, of course. The rhetorical trick of writing about himself as a stand-in middlebrow Gen-Xer, as someone who’d been just as influenced by the inundation of the advertised cool as you were, was actually pretty brilliant. It allowed him to write about overplayed topics (Star Wars, Internet porn, Jesus Freaks) not from the perspective of a “media elitist,” but from the perspective of a Real American upon whom such tricks were played.

That’s when, in this weakly constructed narrative, the Sad Thing happened.

The Sad Thing being that Mr. Klosterman, at some point in his unusually successful career, realised that he’d become yet another member of the media, whose role it is to tell the Kids what to think about stuff. It doesn’t take super-deep reading to put this together; Dinosaur makes this more or less explicit. In an essay called “All the Kids are Right”, he doesn’t even attempt a critical analysis of Lady Gaga’s ascendance, except to note that the reason Rock is a perpetually disruptive genre is that adults (like him) can’t control its future. That role falls on the Kids, who instinctively follow what’s fresh and new. What interests Chuck now is different celebrities’ attempts, against the odds, to Be Authentic. C.K., in other words, is your go-to man for a defence of Weezer, who (he claims) since becoming famous have continued to write exactly the same sorts of directly confessional, emotive songs that they did early in their career, except today [frontman Rivers Cuomo], as a result of his fame, has become so different from his original fans that his music, to them, comes off as glib and phony. You can probably see the connection I’m trying to make by referencing that, w/r/t Klosterman’s own double bind. Once Everyman hits the top, he’s no longer Everyman.

If there’s one overriding theme to Eating the Dinosaur, it’s the difficulty of maintaining authenticity in the modern, mediated world. IMHO, the collection’s most striking essay is its last, a depressing little piece called “FAIL” that dissects Industrial Society and Its Future—a.k.a., The Unibomber Manifesto. “FAIL” brings Klosterman back to his time-honoured technique of putting himself in the seat of the One to be Interrogated [2]. It’s an oddly schizoid exercise, since there’s an obvious cultural prerogative not to support a known terrorist (killed: 3, injured, 23), but at the same time Chuck seems to agree with almost everything that Ted Kaczynski had to say. The Manifesto is a longish (~35,000 word) meditation on the connexion between technological progress and human freedom, the basic vision of which is that the human desire to employ new technology will always be more powerful than the desire to exercise human freedom. The modern ‘leftist’ (Kaczynski’s term) is a person whose social conditioning to participate in the society is so strong that he’ll participate in it at any cost to his own well-being, and the widespread ubiquity of this condition is what will cause the gradual enslavement and immense suffering of society once it’s forgotten how to resist technology’s temptations. Hence the Unibomber’s violent campaign against the members of society he held most directly responsible for the technological enslavement: engineers, airline employees, computer science profs.

C.K. makes this into a masterpiece of self-loathing. He identifies himself as the modern leftist and admits readily that technology—i.e., the ever-more-electronic mass-media—has not made him happier. He feels less ensouled and less free than ever before. Yet at the same time, he feels that the Internet is exactly the thing that he loves the most. A paradox, yes, and one that he’s not willing to force to a conclusion. The book’s closing words are at once humorous and chilling:

I love the Internet. And I will probably love whatever technological firebomb comes next. My apologies, Ted. Your thirty-five-thousand word document makes sense to me, but I cannot be saved. You’ll have to blow up my hands.”

When I read that, I wondered to myself if, indeed, this sort of tension could be indefinitely sustained. Then came last week’s NYT editorial (already hyper-linked above; here’s another chance if you missed it), and I’m finally convinced that the answer to my question is NO. If I’m right, Klosterman is about to enter a new phase. This new article–”My Zombie, Myself: Why Modern Life Feels Rather Undead”—is on one level ‘Classic Klosterman.’ It takes an overexposed pop-cultural conceit (zombies, a la The Walking Dead), puts a slightly contrarian on that phenomena (zombies aren’t a backlash to the vampire trend [which is in fact all about the Twilight-induced teenage chastity fantasy]; zombies have been growing steadily in popularity for the last 40 yrs.), and then connects the overall topic to some broader ‘philosophical’ issue (the horror of zombies is a lot like modern life: savagely horrific, yet boringly manageable). Connecting this article to “FAIL”, however, this Fan has sensed a trend that seems to be approaching a critical mass. Although it’s logically possible for Klosterman to write critical missives contra electronic culture while participating fully as one of its highly visible members, my theory is that practical tensions will eventually cause a large enough pressure to ensure some kind of a fissure. It’s possible for thoughts and actions to be at odds for a while, but it’s my experience that eventually these things reconnect. No cognitive dissonance can last forever.

So I’m looking for the dawning, soon, of a reformed Klosterman. Chuck, sleep lightly. You know I’ll be watching.

[1] The ½ comes from the first of his books that I tried, Chuck Klosterman IV, a volume of collected magazine pieces. I got it from the public library as a guilty pleasure, thinking myself to be basically above this sort of celebrity tripe (though still greedily curious about the finer details of Billy Joel’s personal life), and after reading about Joel’s deep existential sadness, I lay in bed awake for many more hours, gulping in facts and interpretations regarding the complex virgin/whore dichotomy implicit to Brittney Spears, Led Zeppelin cover bands, and Morrisey’s strangely devoted Latino groupies. Up.

[2] Probably the reason I’m especially interested in this article is that, upon reading it, I felt somehow gypped: I’d read the old Manifesto, too, with the goal of writing a similar essay, before I saw Chuck’s version. In other words, I felt I got scooped, even though (objectively speaking) C.K. is the media master and I’m virtually unpublished. Up.

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