Book Review : Chuck Klosterman - X : A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century (2017)
Pre-Order X here (available on May 16)
Part of my job is annoying people I admire. I hate to admit that, but I have to accept it.
Recognizing when something is too good to last is something you acquire with age. When young people stumble upon something awesome, whether it's a great television show, their new favorite band or whatever it might be, they believe it's going to last forever until it actually ends. I've dreaded the moment I would start reading a brand new essay collection by pop culture thinker Chuck Klosterman only to realize I've already read most of the material already about halfway into Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs in 2010. Maybe I exaggerate a little, but this moment has come. I had already read the majority of the essays in Chuck Klosterman's new collection X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century. And guess what? That didn't make a difference, I've enjoyed it as much as anything else from him I've read the first time. That makes Klosterman a pleasant literary anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless.
How did he pull this off?
Let's begin with the material I had already read. Eighteen essays from X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century were previously featuring on iconic, too-good-to-last sports and pop culture website Grantland. If you were as disciplined a Grantland as I was, you've probably read the majority of these too. It doesn't mean they're not great when you read them a second time around, though.
I had previously read Metal Machine 'Music, which was named Injustice For All on Grantland, and reading it AGAIN made me appreciate Chuck Klosterman's all-encompassing perspective better. That made cannot viscerally love or hate anything in a vacuum (at least not in his writing). The way he explains the socioeconomic context that lead to Metallica and Lou Reed collaboration album's LuLu, makes you rethink your own concept of good or bad. Some art can be good or bad simply because you love or hate it. Other art can be objectively bad for reasons out of your or the artist's control.
Another piece I had already read I gained a new perspective on is My Zombie, Myself, originally published in the New York Times in the trail of The Walking Dead's initial success. A show he claims not to have seen at the time. The cultural consensus on the zombie renaissance is that it simply was the inevitable successor to the vampire renaissance of the last decade *, which Klosterman disagrees with.
He makes the crucial distinction that Twilight and the subsequent outpouring of sexy vampire fiction primarily explored impossible teenage relationships while zombies, in and of themselves, explored questions that one can only understand in adult age. Chuck Klosterman's perspective on zombies is 100% original (or I assume so) and, once again, leaves the easy and unimportant part of the argument out of the equation. It's easy to blame economics and marketing when discussing mainstream entertainment. Truth is, economics and marketing, won't make you like or dislike zombie. All it'll do is give you more (and potentially shittier) zombies for taking interest in them.
Because of technology, the gap between the life one inherits and the life one creates has become exponentially vast. The fake world is much, much larger. Every online existence is a noncommercial simulation of celebrity culture; Users develop a character (i.e. the best-case portrait of themselves) and then track the size of its audience (via the number of friends they acquire or page views they receive). Private citizens now face a dilemma previously reserves for the authentically famous: How do they cope with the disparity between how they are seen in the communal sphere and how they live in private?
I could tackle every essay in the collection like this, but I suspect it would entertain me more than it would entertain you. Let's skip to the material I hadn't read because there's a lot of that too in X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century. Perhaps my favorite was There's Something Peculiar About Lying in a Dark Room. You Can't See Anything, on cartoon character Charlie Brown, which I loved because it recontextualized an experience I had at an age I was too young to appreciate.
There's also a very moving essay about the passing of his father I somehow missed when it was first featured on Grantland. Curiously enough, aside from the mammoth retrospective of Kiss' recording career which I know too little about to appreciate, I find that again Chuck Klosterman kept his most powerful, paradigm-shifting material for the end. His essay on celebrity deaths is still extremely powerful and timely in 2017.
Throughout my reading of X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century, I kept asking myself: why do I like this as much as I did the first time? Essays are not supposed to be like that. They're supposed to enlighten you with insight and you're supposed to move on with your life. This is how these things work. I came to the conclusion that Chuck Klosterman's perspective on things itself is more important and enjoyable than his subject.
Take his portrait of Pavement's frontman Stephen Malkmus for example. I've never, ever gave attention to a song by this so-called important band, yet vaguely remember them being featured on one of these hip alt-rock television shows in Canada in the 90s. I profoundly cared about Malkmus for a couple of pages. More than I cared about his band. Klosterman did this, not Malkmus himself. Malkmus would've kept existing independently of my awareness and I would've continued thinking his name was a rare breed of walruses if Klosterman hadn't been there to connect the dots and talk about him in context. I cared that Chuck Klosterman cared about Stephen Malkmus and that made me care about Malkmus himself. Does that make sense?
I don't know why X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century claims to be about the 21st century in its title because it's wholly inaccurate. This book is a whole lot about 20th century things: Peanuts, Pavement, Guns N' Roses, Eminem, Brent Musburger, Oasis, Gregg Popovich, Kobe Bryant, Eddie Van Halen, etc. It's more of a book about how 20th century creatures transitioned into the new millenium, which I supposed was the only was the 21st century could start. What makes this book inherently special and enjoyable is the intimacy with which it is presented. Chuck Klosterman took the time to introduce all the pieces and provide context as to why he thinks its interesting. Klosterman is (sort of) reflecting on the last decade of his career.
I think adults shouldn't have favorite things or people. That dealing in such absolutes is fucking childish, but I'm biased here. I feel an intellectual kinship to Chuck Klosterman's writing that may or may not be creepy. But...I think he's my favorite writer? He is, without the shadow of a doubt, the writer I've consistently enjoyed the most since I've started this site. Get this book when it comes out on May 16.