On the front cover of his fourth book, pop culture journalist Chuck Klosterman looks lost. He’s little more than a face, barely visible as he peeks over a milling crowd of pedestrians in the middle of what could be any New York City crosswalk. His features are largely obscured by a thick blond beard, and his gaze, drifting through a pair of black square-framed glasses, seems like an advertisement for urban dislocation. On the back cover the gaze remains, but the pedestrians are gone, leaving a 34-year-old man standing alone on a street corner in jeans and an untucked dress shirt, complemented by a light blue sweater.
In a seminar room in the basement of Berkeley College, after delivering a guest lecture, Klosterman doesn’t quite measure up to the picture. For starters, he’s gotten a haircut and has trimmed his beard.
“Yeah, and I got new glasses, too,” he says.
So he has. And even though Klosterman never mentions the fact that his glasses are “new” only because they’re different from the ones he’s wearing on the cover of his book — the glasses that undoubtedly thousands of people have seen in bookstores and on Web sites — he is certainly conscious that out there, somewhere in America, there is an image of Chuck Klosterman being promoted and sold.
As a writer and critic, there isn’t much Klosterman isn’t conscious of. That fact is perhaps best illustrated by his book — a collection of essays entitled “Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas” — which deals explicitly with American celebrity culture and the constructed images and identities that have come to dominate it. His observations — for instance, that Britney Spears may be “a blond Machiavelli” — are drawn from an understanding that so much of the celebrity world, as seen by the masses, is simple posturing.
Those familiar with Klosterman’s writing know that he is one of the most skilled cultural diarists of our time, capable of offering not just irony but insight into subjects ranging from Steve Perry’s lyrics to Steve Nash’s playing style. He drops nearly as many cultural references in person as he does in print: Jonathan Franzen, Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Led Zeppelin, Wolfmother. He defends even the lowliest of cultural miscellany as relevant.
“I mean, pop culture now has taken on this pejorative connotation, so that when you say ‘pop culture,’ people just think you mean ‘Kelly Clarkson,’ “Klosterman says, leaning forward in his chair. “But pop culture is really just popular culture. It’s whatever people are consumed in. Are people consuming what you’re indicating as high art? Well, yeah, they are. Is it as universal as, say, Will Ferrell movies? Well, no. But that shouldn’t be surprising to people.”
Klosterman’s speech, betraying his North Dakotan roots with a distinct Great Lakes accent, is rapid and earnest, seizing upon certain words with unusual force and punctuated by the frequent “y’know.” His cultural biases trend heavily toward the democratic.
“In my second book I wrote an essay about ‘Saved By The Bell,’” Klosterman says. “Part of the reason I did that was because I wanted to pick something that I knew no one had ever examined intellectually. I just wanted to forward the notion that you can think critically about anything.”
Such anti-snobbery is one of the things that makes Klosterman’s work so delightful to read. As Klosterman himself wrote in that second book (“Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”), “What matters is that nothing is ever ‘in and of itself.’” Everything, and anything, can be important.
“The degree to which something is sophisticated is not so much a product of the artifice, but a product of the person consuming it,” he says. “I think people want to think critically about their lives. They want to think critically about the art that forms their worldview. So if someone says that I write about throwaway trash culture, that’s true if you’re going to perceive things like reality television and Guns N’ Roses as that culture. If you’re going to make up the definitions and say, ‘this is what’s important and this is what’s not,’ then maybe I’m writing about what you think is not important.”
The man speaking sounds like a Mencken disciple with a degree in sociology. Everything that passes before his eyes, or through his pen, is treated as if it were the subject of some experiment — a foreign, slightly absurd specimen held up to the light by a researcher whose acumen is rivaled only by his wit. And he’s never loath to involve himself in the joke: Readers will discover that the untucked-dress-shirt-and-sweater ensemble from the back cover of “Chuck Klosterman IV” is actually the product of a decision to dress like a department-store mannequin for a day and then write about the results (see “The Dress Code Hypothetical,” page 243).
Ironically, the only thing Klosterman refuses to analyze in depth is himself.
“I never self-identified as a critic until I already was one, I guess,” he says. “When I wrote [my first book], ‘Fargo Rock City,’ I was thinking, ‘I want to write a book I want to read. This book doesn’t exist, and I’d like to read it, so I’ll write it.’ And I think my books work when I do that. They don’t work when I try to think what might be interesting.”
The word “American” seems the only appropriate description for a sentiment so enterprising and self-assured in nature. Despite his growing popularity, Klosterman doesn’t seem to be under any delusions that his particular craft is anything but a reflection of his own character. And he’s OK with that.
“Criticism is autobiography, no matter how many people tell you it’s not,” he said. “It is. It’s people basically writing about their experience of something. You learn more about the writer than you ever do about the product.”
Maybe Klosterman is right on this point. But, assuming he is, how much of Klosterman could come through in a profile written by another culture journalist?