Sunday, February 16, 2014

IV - Chuck Klosterman (2007)

In April of 2008, I reviewed Killing Yourself to Live as the 6th review on Flying Houses.  I have just re-read that post, and I am almost completely embarrassed by it.  However, it did confirm my earlier suspicions about IV.  I first read it in October 2007 (about 6 1/2 years ago) and I ranked it below both Killing Yourself to Live and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.  I didn't keep up with Klosterman after IV - I seem to remember that he published a novel.  And after checking Amazon it appears that he has maintained his prolific output--he has actually published two novels and two other books of essays.  I am writing this paragraph from the Logan Square branch of the Chicago Public Library, and I will most likely check out at least a couple of these books and review them in a few months.

But why revisit IV?  Well, my sister had borrowed both IV and a DVD of Boogie Nights, and I saw her over Christmas, and she gave them back to me.  I didn't have much else to read and I had a long commute back on December 26th.  I had to take a ferry, then a bus, then wait in the airport for an hour or two, and then a plane.  It was basically 9 hours in various forms of transportation from door-to-door.  I took out IV because I had nothing else to read.  I read 175 pages that day.

Which actually doesn't seem like a lot because Klosterman's writing is a quick read.  However, I barely read anything on the plane ride because I could not concentrate.  I overheard an incredibly frank airplane conversation between two men on a variety of sexual subjects - one was a gay 19-year-old from Macedonia, and the other was a 72-year-old widower from Tennessee.  It was hard to tune out, particularly when I wanted to interrupt and either offer my own opinion or mock-scold them for how graphically they were speaking.  But this is beside the point.

Klosterman divides IV up into three sections: interviews/profiles of celebrities and other ephemera about "trends," theoretical essays on various subjects, and a short story/novel fragment.  Parts of each of the three are very good.  I believe I enjoyed reading IV more more at age 30 than at age 24.

And it must be pointed out that this is a strange book to review.  After all, it is "dated."  Probably the most heartbreaking thing about it is the "cultural moment" that has passed.  Also, while IV is not a book of reviews, it is not far off from that, and reviewing it feels oddly meta.

It kicks off with a profile done on Britney Spears.  This is probably about as accurate today as it was then, even though it is now more than 10 years old.  There are some interesting tidbits about Justin Timberlake and Fred Durst that I had forgotten about, but otherwise, there is little here that the reader will not already know.
The other subjects include Bono, Val Kilmer, Steve Nash, Gilbert Arenas, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Wilco, Billy Joel and Mike Skinner.  Approximately nothing has changed for all of these subjects except Arenas and Skinner.  "Debriefing Agent Zero" is probably the most controversial essay here since Arenas comes off as perhaps the most lovable NBA player ever, and his image suffered considerably after he put a gun in his locker at an arena.  Skinner has since faded into obscurity, though I am sure any new Streets album would receive fairly significant coverage.  The White Stripes are obviously broken up, but their whole mystique and legacy has only grown with time.  

Still, all of these essays are good.  Sometimes Klosterman comes off kind of sounding like a jerk (in the Britney Spears piece, for example, and maybe even the Mike Skinner one), but he always asks good questions and has a clever way of recognizing why certain artists are acclaimed and others remain obscure.

He also writes about eating chicken McNuggets and nothing else for a week, a Morrissey convention with a heavy concentration of Latinos, Some Kind of Monster, "Bats Day" at Disneyland (basically a ton of goths going there on the same day), female tribute bands, Styx, REO Speedwagon, and Journey playing on a cruise, Led Zeppelin's fourth album, fortune tellers, and a collection of obituaries.

This is a hard review to write because there is something quotable in almost every essay.  It could get incredibly long and tedious.  I suppose it was interesting to read the White Stripes essay because it quoted Wendy Case.  Now I wanted to say that I hadn't yet seen the Paybacks play live, but now I realize that I did in 2006 or 2007, before I read the piece.  I don't know if they are still playing, but that was one of the best shows I've seen without knowing a band's material beforehand.  Klosterman's short description of her is a good example of his style:

"Wendy Case is considerably less shy than Meg White.
In fact, Wendy Case is considerably less shy than David Lee Roth.  She is the thirty-eight-year-old lead singer/guitarist for the Paybacks, a band Case describes as "hard pop." Her hair is blond on top and brown underneath, she laughs like a '73 Plymouth Scamp that refuses to turn over, and she can probably outdrink 90 percent of the men in Michigan." (119)

However, that is a kind of personal quote because of the aforementioned anecdote.  But the bullet points in the Arenas piece are a near-perfect example of Klosterman's humor:

  • Occasionally plays poker on a laptop computer during halftime, but denies that he plays against other people on-line (he evidently competes against the computer).
  • Once took a shower at halftime without removing his uniform.
  • Favorably compares himself to a Japanese cooking device.
  • Prefers to spend road trips alone in his hotel room, staying awake all night to watch infomercials and do sit-ups.
  • Enjoys bowling (his high game is 277) and the work of the rapper The Game (with whom he is friends).
  • Installed a hypobaric tent in his Virginia home to simulate high-altitude oxygen levels.
  • Has essentially become the guardian of a twelve-year-old boy named Andre McAllister, who lost most of his family in a house fire.  Arenas contacted the boy after reading his story in the newspaper (this, I suppose, is more "nice" than insane).
  • A maniacal grudge holder, Arenas claimed he would sacrifice an entire NBA season to play one game at the collegiate level, solely to punish Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski for leaving him off the U.S. Olympic Team.  "One college game," he wrote on his blog.  "That's five fouls, right?...40-minute Duke, they got soft rims....I'd probably score 84 or 85. (178)
The last bullet point is the most ironic point in the essay (Arenas was suspended for almost an entire NBA season, and currently plays in the Chinese Basketball Association) but the essay is one of the most surprising in the book.  So is the essay on Steve Nash.  

But the best part of the first part is the collection of obituaries: Dee Dee Ramone/Robbin Crosby, Spalding Gray/Mary-Ellis Bunim, Eric Griffiths, and Johnny Carson.  The first two pieces in this larger "essay" are fantastic.  Of course nobody remembers Robbin Crosby, and Klosterman perfectly elucidates why: 

"The reason Crosby's June 6 death was mostly ignored is that his band seemed corporate and fake and pedestrian; the reason Ramone's June 5th death will be remembered is that his band was seen as representative of a counterculture that lacked a voice.  The contradiction is that countercultures get endless media attention: the only American perspectives thought to have any meaningful impact are those that come from the fringes.  The voice of the counterculture is, in  fact, inexplicably deafening.  Meanwhile, mainstream culture (i.e., the millions and millions of people who bought Ratt albums merely because that music happened to be the soundtrack for their lives) is usually portrayed as an army of mindless automatons who provide that counterculture with something to rail against.  The things that matter to normal people are not supposed to matter to smart people." (209)

The distinction between Spalding Gray and Mary-Ellis Bunim (who created The Real World) is also beautifully teased out in four short pages.  It is hard to pick out a passage from it (the essay is essentially perfect) but perhaps the main point about what drives reality television should be noted:

"The twentysomethings cast on The Real World were not complex subjects meant to be uncovered and examined; they were supposed to be archetypes of youth culture, and they were supposed to make the melodramatic choices (and exhibit the melodramatic behavior) that would drive a serial TV program.  They were supposed to be hyperreal versions of who they already were.  What they did, ultimately, was unknowingly embody the same aesthetic Spalding Gray invented when he first became a monologist.  'I became a kind of inverted Method Actor,' Gray wrote.  'I was using myself to play myself.  [It was] a kind of creative narcissism.'" (212)

Truthfully, "Part One" is hit-or-miss.  True, all of the essays are "good" but whether or not you enjoy it may depend on whether you find that particular subject "interesting." "Part Two," then, has a more global focus, and I just realized that I hadn't watched Lost when I read this book in 2007, so that was one thing that was new to me.  But more of what comes across is the "lost era" that was 2004-2007 and how Klosterman did not really make it his business to predict what would happen very soon.  

The topics of "Part Two" include Barry Bonds (not Alex Rodriguez), nemeses/arch-enemies, "advancement," the Olympics, clothes, anti-American sentiment, "guilty pleasures," mainstream/obscure culture, staying with one person for your whole life, artists that are neither overrated nor underrated but "rated," pirates, robots, stem-cell research, and a couple other things (I don't want to write a table of contents posing as a review, but that is kind of what this is turning into).  Most of these essays were written for Esquire.  Most of them are pretty good, but they are really more musings than anything else.  These also contain the funniest parts in the entire book.  

"4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42" is a comparison between Lost and Survivor and is fantastic.  However, another personal anecdote is necessary with "I Wanna Get Free."  This essay was written in 2006, so I could not have used it in my colloquium on "Political Rebellion in Literature" at Gallatin (it was delivered in 2005).  However, it is essentially the point I was trying to make in that project.  This would not have any application in reality until the Occupy Movement, but the quotes are prescient:

"Something has occupied my mind as of late, and I can't tell if this thought is reassuring or terrifying: I've been thinking about the possibility of a revolution, or--more accurately--the impossibility of revolution.  I've started wondering what would have to happen before the American populace would try to overthrow its government and how such a coup would play itself out.  My conclusions are that (a) nothing could make this happen, and (b) no one would know what to do if it somehow did.  The country is too large, its social systems are too complex, and its people are too complacent, too reasonable, too confused.  I've decided that the U.S. government is (for lack of a better, preexisting term) 'unoverthrowable.'  And this would probably make a man like Patrick Henry profoundly depressed, were it not for the fact that he's been dead for 207 years." (338) 

I'm not sure which "Part" I like better, but "Part Two" feels like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs "extra content."  Some of these essays are actually really good, but for some reason, like I expressed previously, I considered SD&CP (no longer SDACP) my favorite.  I should probably re-read that.

"Part Three" is a piece of fiction that is pretty good, though I seem to remember not liking it that much the first time I read it.  However, I also wrote that it was "pretty good" in 2008 so my opinion has not changed on it.  I guess it just feels to me like a piece that someone in one of my former creative writing classes would have written.  Now, it would have been "one of the best" of those stories, but if this is "publishable fiction" then we get to the heart of why I have a love-hate relationship with Chuck Klosterman.  

I love his writing because it is breezy, articulate, and occasionally surprising (like seeing a reference to Comets on Fire in "Cultural Betrayal").  He is very witty, and knows how to write well.  However, I hate him because I am jealous of him.  Perhaps he is not fabulously well-to-do, but I would imagine he's been paid pretty well for his writing.  And he gets to publish pretty much whatever he wants.  

Now I get to publish pretty much whatever I want on Flying Houses, but I get no pay from it (in nearly six years I have made about $10.00 that should be mailed to me in a check relatively soon).  So I am jealous and I am sure if Esquire or GQ or some other such magazine gave me a chance to write for pay, I could do just as good a job.  Some of these essays date back to 1996.  Klosterman knew what he was doing from a young age and managed to progress through the journalistic ranks to his current position, and I should not begrudge him for my failures.  I just tend to feel like a superfluous figure in the universe as of late, and I know I should be getting paid for something.