Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


October 7, 2008

The Cure for the Common Cusack

Chuck Klosterman writes inwardly about everybody's celebrity—except his own.

Craig Fehrman

The reaction to a new Chuck Klosterman book is always more entertaining than the book itself—no matter how good of a book he writes. Just as with a Klosterman book, you can expect lots of gimmicks: long rhetorical questions ("You are offered a new book by Chuck Klosterman…"), physical cheap shots, and self-conscious non sequiturs.

There's something about his writing that asks to be imitated—that begs you to turn it on itself (guilty as charged). Thus, interviews with Klosterman always contain a variation on this question: How do you explain your own rise and celebrity? Klosterman always demurs, which is odd since this is exactly the kind of question he answers about everyone else.

Klosterman, Cusack, and Britney. Graphic by Mister Lister
How will Klosterman return to talking about the self-awareness of others, if he still won't talk about his own?

Klosterman, Cusack, and Britney. Graphic by Mister Lister

Beginning with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs—which for most people serves as his baseline, for better or worse —Klosterman has gleefully explored low culture. He uses fuzzy words for fuzzy concepts, words like self-awareness, self-actualization, iconography, and fame. In the book's opening essay, for example, Klosterman suggests that John Cusack and the cult of "fake love" have started impeding everyday relationships. Real people pattern themselves after fake people, and chaos ensues. Or, as Klosterman puts it when referring to pop culture: "In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever 'in and of itself.' "

This idea is even clearer in the celebrity profiles collected in Chuck Klosterman IV. A profile of Britney Spears, originally published in Esquire, talks less about her obliviousness and more about how that obliviousness generates her allure. "Britney Spears is a metaphor for the American Dream" because she can be all things to all people. Britney's celebrity, and Klosterman's analysis, is relational. It's the same process that led to Klosterman's own ascension, and the need to ask him about his fame. He became his own best example; he became John Cusack.

Most of Klosterman's work, then, explains the ways in which pop culture relies on, and revolves around, celebrity. Lately, though, he's written far more about sports than music, movies, or anything else. This means more than simply using sports comparisons or analogies to get at something else—in Klosterman's terms, to narrow down your nemesis or to gauge Advancement. This is the real deal, Red Smith shit, replete with interviews and game descriptions and analysis, published in ESPN and Play magazines.

Superficially, the song remains the same. Klosterman still parses awkward ideas ("For Tom Brady, being perfect is normal"), offers meta-media observations ("cable television has devalued society's relationship with sports in the same way MTV changed rock music"), and unloads a bevy of A/B/C lists and ANYWAYs—he's just doing it to Kobe Bryant instead of Billy Joel. Having spent years working in newspapers, Klosterman has always been a better journalist than most literary It-boys and -girls, and his sportswriting reflects that. With a few exceptions, it's been well received, less fanatically but more broadly than his career-making criticism.

But below the surface, Klosterman has changed more than just his subject. He's also deviated from the big, driving themes of books like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. Take this recent article on the Boston Celtics' resurgence. Initially, it seems like quintessential Klosterman: "There is not a lot of motivation for professional basketball players to explain the texture of their existence. Self-actualization does not help you get an offensive rebound." But Klosterman's not talking about how the Celtics envision or embody The NBA Athlete; he's "talking about their feelings." His focus is inward, not outward; it's more like Klosterman musing on what it means to be a critic than on what it means to be an icon.

This represents a pretty big shift in his approach, and it recurs throughout his sportswriting. When turning to America's favorite antihero, Barry Bonds, Klosterman sets aside metaphorical significance and makes incisive points about Bonds's personal life. "There has never been a single moment in Bonds's existence," writes Klosterman, "where being around superstar baseball players was peculiar." Even in a profile of Gilbert Arenas, who "needs less than one minute to completely demystify every aspect of his iconography," Klosterman seems most taken by Arenas's sincerity. Where Britney is mystifying, Gilbert is "knowable," to himself as much as anyone else. Again, it's the difference between looking out and looking in.

We could just chalk this change up to the differences between athletes and celebrities and call it a day, but it also applies to Klosterman's newest venture: fiction. Klosterman's first novel, Downtown Owl , chronicles the fall and winter of 1983 in the small town of Owl, North Dakota.

Klosterman's novel also retains his stylistic tics. While you can't fault an author for porting around his techniques, this does make the main characters sound a lot like Chuck Klosterman. Mitch Hrlicka, a high-school quarterback as comfortable in the clutch as Alex Rodriguez, thinks that "everyone wanted to become the person they were already pretending to be." Even Cubby Candy, whose brain damage impairs his moral reasoning, sounds like Klosterman.

Next to these characters, the novel's most un-Klostermanian aspects—its narrator and plot—are the biggest weak spots. But this isn't really that strange—it's just how fiction might work. Instead of celebrity or self-actualization, Downtown Owl must concentrate on what is inward and self-contained because that's what novels do. A fictional character doesn't have a public existence or a place in culture, only brands and associations that it evokes. Pamela Anderson might be "not a real person," as Klosterman argues in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, but she still draws her meaning from the rest of society in a way fictional characters cannot.

Downtown Owl doesn't measure up to Klosterman's other writing. It effectively captures the high-school experience, but proves to be wildly inconsistent, with its best chapter a nonfiction-like tangent on Gordon Kahl. But the novel does manage to offer a coherent, overarching theme: The characters all possess a "shared knowledge," both personally and culturally, which contrasts with the fragmented, niche-ridden lives we lead today. Deliberately, I think, Klosterman links the town's universality to time as much as place—spending, for example, plenty of pages on Owl High School's attempt to read Nineteen Eighty-Four together. This gap between Then and Now might suggest why Klosterman started writing about sports or stopped writing about "iconography." After all, what is a celebrity if not a form of "shared knowledge"? Maybe somewhere between sportswriting and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman decided that the idea of celebrity now works in a different way or on a different scale—that we've found the cure for the common Cusack.

Of course, an alternate explanation for Klosterman's shift is that he exhausted the autobiographical material which fills his criticism, and that writing on sports and writing a novel allowed him to live a little. Maybe he had to write this to get back to writing that. This seems sensible, but it also poses an interesting question. How will Klosterman return to talking about the celebrity and culture and self-awareness of others, if he still won't talk about his own?

(You can check out more of Mister Lister's Gelf graphics at

Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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Article by Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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