Chuck Klosterman Esquire Essays

New York Times–bestselling author and cultural critic Chuck Klosterman presents a unique Audio Companion for Chuck Klosterman X, in which he contextualizes and reads from the collection of his best articles and essays, providing both a fascinating tour of the past decade and an ideal introduction to the mind of one of the sharpest and most prolific observers of our unusual times.
Klosterman has created an incomparable body of work in books, magazines, and newspapers, and on the Web. His writing spans the realms of culture and sports, while also addressing interpersonal issues, social quandaries, and ethical boundaries. Klosterman has written nine previous books, helped found and establish Grantland, served as the New York Times Magazine Ethicist, worked on film and television productions, and contributed profiles and essays to outlets such as GQEsquireThe A.V. ClubBillboard, and The Guardian.
Chuck Klosterman X collects the most intriguing of those pieces, and, for this Audio Companion, Klosterman offers intimate and exclusive commentary about each piece, telling stories about each one, reading excerpts, and relating unexpected asides and digressions. Subjects include Breaking Bad, Lou Reed, zombies, KISS, Jimmy Page, Stephen Malkmus, steroids, Mountain Dew, Chinese Democracy, the Beatles, Jonathan Franzen, Taylor Swift, Tim Tebow, Kobe Bryant, Usain Bolt, Eddie Van Halen, Charlie Brown, the Cleveland Browns, and many more cultural figures and pop phenomena.

By Chuck Klosterman
384 pgs.
Published by Scribner

It’s a couple days before Christmas, 2004, and I’m sitting in the Minneapolis airport waiting for a significantly delayed flight to Fargo, North Dakota.  Chuck Klosterman is sitting across from me, talking loudly on his cell phone.  I am reading the issue of Esquire with George Clooney on the cover.  Chuck Klosterman writes for Esquire.  Even so, he has no reason to believe that I or any of the other Fargo-bound holiday travelers recognize him—despite the fact that he writes about our destination frequently, most notably in his first book, the heavy metal paean Fargo Rock City.

That book netted Klosterman a job at SPIN Magazine—a reliable source for solid music writing in the first part of the decade, if not the cultural barometer it once aspired to be.  A subsequent collection of essays, Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs, has (deservedly) escalated Klosterman to a rung of celebrity rarely (if ever) enjoyed by music writers.  In other words, people actually read his books.  However, the success of Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs has also plunged Klosterman into a strange period of consistently misidentifying his own strengths as a writer.  For example, the essays in Sex began with facets of popular culture (The SIMs, Saved By the Bell, the 80’s Celtics/Lakers rivalry) and mined them for philosophical or human or American truths.  In his columns for SPIN and Esquire, Klosterman now opts instead for observational comedy, aiming for a general quirkiness—absent of the depth that made his first two books work—and riffing on hot topics like why are men different than women.

In the January, 2005 issue of Esquire—the one that I am reading—he rails against people who feel betrayed by culture, citing a friend upset about the final episode of Sex & the City, in which Carrie Bradshaw ends up with Mr. Big.  This reads mostly like Klosterman responding to daily annoyance, not unlike a stand-up comic.  It also mostly rephrases an argument he made in Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs:  Culture, he says, can never be wrong.

In the July, 2004 issue of Esquire, he sets forth the theory of “Advancement,” which states that true artistic geniuses make works of art that are unintelligible by 99% of the population.  These Advanced works of art are neither 1) what is expected from the artist, nor 2) the opposite of what is expected.  “For example,” he writes, “if Radiohead released an album of wordless, mechanized droning, that would be predictable.  If Radiohead made a glam record, that would be overt.  But if Radiohead recorded an album of blues standards, they would Advance.”  He names Val Kilmer as the most Advanced actor on the planet.  This is intriguing, but reads a bit like barroom conversation among hipsters—something I would participate in, but hesitate to subject others to.

In the October, 2004 issue of Esquire, Klosterman writes about the imminent threat of “Super-Babies”—children born inhumanly strong or with X-ray vision—as a justifiable reason to support stem-cell research.

I have not particularly enjoyed or agreed with any of these essays.  However, I have found myself bringing up at least two of them in casual conversation.  This, I believe, perfectly encapsulates my relationship with Chuck Klosterman, the writer.

Chuck Klosterman, the person, on the other hand, is sitting across from me in the Minneapolis airport, talking loudly on his cell-phone.  Apparently, Val Kilmer has read the Advancement article, and has invited Klosterman to visit him at his house in New Mexico for an exclusive interview.  This in and of itself is not surprising.  What is surprising is that Klosterman is talking so loudly that he must obviously 1) want people to know that Val Kilmer is a fan of his, and 2) want people to know that he wants people to know that Val Kilmer is a fan of his.

Now: Jump forward to the present.  Klosterman has recently published Chuck Klosterman IV, a collection of his magazine and newspaper articles spanning the past ten years or so.  I have been increasingly frustrated with Klosterman’s writing over the past couple of years.  His last book, Killing Yourself to Live, was profoundly disappointing in that it used an incredible idea (a cross-country trip visiting rock stars’ graves) as an excuse to discuss mainly two things: how eccentric he is, and how many women love him.  And yet, I constantly reference passages from Killing Yourself to Live in conversation.  So, despite my current disenchantment with Klosterman, I bought and read IV immediately.

Chuck Klosterman IV is divided into three sections.  The first contains full-length magazine and newspaper articles—celebrity profiles, ruminations on pop-cultural events, conversations with psychics about bowling.  Klosterman is obsessed with celebrity persona: Are these people for real or full of shit?  First, he assumes that each person he profiles is absolutely as smart as they possibly could be (this is an extremely rare quality in people, especially writers—elsewhere, Klosterman writes that every successful person absolutely deserves to be successful; going by the way he treats his subjects, he truly believes this.)  Then he goes about dissecting their actions in order to determine which pieces of the person’s personality are calculated and which are genuine.

This is Klosterman at his best.  Taken as a whole, the chapters in the first section of IV greatly enhance one another.  He seems to be approaching a single question from many angles and through many subjects (Britney Spears, Val Kilmer, Mike Skinner, Billy Joel.)  The fact that he wrote many of these pieces as assignments for editors keeps him from slipping into self-indulgence.

The section reaches its apex in a collection of four pieces on celebrity deaths.  Here, he compares the death of Dee Dee Ramone to that of Ratt’s Robbin Crosby; he compares the deaths of Spalding Gray and Mary-Ellis Bunim; he ruminates on the deaths of Johnny Carson and Eric Griffiths.  IV is worth buying merely for these essays; everything else is gravy.  They begin by examining each subject’s persona and end with genuine insight into American culture.

However, Klosterman is just as obsessed with his own persona.  This is the Klosterman who wants us to hear him talking about Val Kilmer—equally deliberate and self-aware.  IV bears all the marks of someone keen on controlling others’ perceptions of his own personality.  He comments on each of the articles with introductions and footnotes; conducts pre-emptive strikes against criticism by criticizing himself; plays both sides of arguments; and generally presents himself as emotionally unattached to his own writing.

These are niggling complaints in the first section of Chuck Klosterman IV, but they evolve into crutches in the second section.  Here, Klosterman collects essays from his columns in SPIN and Esquire. (All three of the aforementioned columns are included; the “Super-Babies” article has not gotten any better with age.)  These, unsurprisingly, vary greatly in depth and quality.

But IV gets really bizarre in its final section—a fifty page piece of fiction (!) that Klosterman wrote while working as a film critic in Akron, Ohio.  It is about a film critic in Akron, Ohio.  In his introduction, Klosterman calls this “reverse creativity.”

I have no idea whether the quality of this fiction is good or bad, and this is why: Klosterman writes fiction in the exact same voice as he writes non-fiction.

In the introduction, Klosterman insists he did not mean to make his protagonist so dislikable.  Yet, the protagonist’s persona is exactly like the persona Klosterman takes on in his writing.  So what do we take from this?  Is he completely unaware of the similarity?  Does he think we’ll be unable to notice the similarity?  Or is he merely trying to control our perception by pre-emptively suggesting that he is unlikable so that we may assure him he is not?  The piece is seven years old.  Does he think it’s good or bad?  Is it Advanced?  Or is Klosterman merely working toward Advancement (a move which is decidedly not Advanced… unless, maybe, it’s made by the chief proponent of Advancement)?

I don’t know.

The other thing that Klosterman did in the Minneapolis airport back in December, 2004 was this:  He had either a first class ticket or a business class ticket (I don’t really know how to distinguish between the two—whatever the case, he wasn’t flying coach.)  He was waiting for the delayed flight with the rest of us.  Yet, he waited until everybody else boarded the plan, and got on at the very last minute.  This was something so simple and inconsequential, but, for all I’ve flown, I’ve never seen it done before.  It probably has some easy explanation (claustrophobia?), but I’m baffled by it.  I’ve thought about it many times since, but I really couldn’t tell you why.

See, I should have realized then what occurred to me after reading the fiction at the end of IV:  Chuck Klosterman is way, way ahead of me.

Marty Brown, 2006

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