Sunday, October 14, 2007

Chuck Klosterman IV

Klosterman is my generation's premiere rock critic, and possibly our most distinctive voice on pop culture. (God help us.) His first book, Fargo Rock City, combined the story of his own youth on a rural North Dakota farm with an encyclopedic knowledge of '80s hair metal. I think next was Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs, which felt to me like a collection of previously published works but was meant as an over-arching cultural manifesto. Then came Killing Yourself To Live, a book about a road trip to the sites of various rock star deaths. And now IV actually is a collection of random essays, primarily from Esquire and Spin.

Klosterman has one of those matter-of-fact, slightly smart-ass, I-can-explain-everything American voices, born of wide open spaces, long hours spent discussing nothing with friends, and generations of glad-handing, too-friendly salesmen. He's like that semi-annoying friend who won't shut up about his crazy theories -- you don't mind having him around, because he's usually funny and entertaining, but, after a while, you wish the dude would just shut the hell up. In a book, of course, you can shut him up any time you want to, which makes writing a great career choice for guys like that.

IV divides, not so neatly, into three parts. The first, "Things That Are True," collects profiles of various famous people, both actors and musicians, ranging from Britney Spears to Bono. Klosterman is at his best when he's dealing with the real world, so this is the strongest material in the book. He's quite good on the vagarities of fame, and also on how weird famous people can get. He does run off on his various theories in this section, but they're always grounded in the specifics of some particular person's life, and his work is stronger for that.

Next is "Things That Might Be True," which is mostly the record of a column he wrote for Esquire. (It's also interspersed with a series of weird sophomoric thought experiments -- of the "would you rather be killed by a random goat accident or by a jealous husband" type -- which is the kind of thing he's done before.) Klosterman's theories are amusing, and occasionally more than that, but running through a whole lot of them in a row just reinforces how college-bull-session his thinking is. My advice to Klosterman, not that he'd listen to me, would be to cut back on this stuff, since he's not nearly as deep a thinker as he thinks. (And he's beginning to show the initial signs of the self-educated crank -- look to Dave Sim for one potential terminal stage of that ailment.)

Last is a semi-autobiographical novella, "You Tell Me," under the section title "Something That Isn't True At All." It's not bad, but it's pure lit-fic ramble, starting nowhere and going nowhere. It's not so much a story itself as it is a polished but abandoned section of a potential novel. Again, it's minor Klosterman at best. I wouldn't say that he couldn't write fiction, but he would need to fictionalize a lot more, and actually have a story. (If he wanted to write fiction, I think he'd be smart to try a novel about a rock star or movie star -- he understands quite a bit about those people's lives, and it would keep him from falling into pseudo-autobiography.)

So the first half of IV is the best stuff...which, given Klosterman's Led Zeppelin riff in the title, is appropriate. Like Zep's untitled fourth album, the second half isn't bad, just a mixed bag, with some things that really don't fit well together or necessarily deserve to be preserved.

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