Books Like Chuck Klosterman's 'X' May Represent a New Kind of History Lesson

by John Paul

8 August 2017

Pop cultural savant Chuck Klosterman’s X collects his many disparate musings on all things otherwise inconsequential and in so doing creates a pop culture roadmap.
 
cover art

X

Chuck Klosterman

(Blue Rider)
US: May 2017

Often imitated and rarely replicated, the writing style of Chuck Klosterman has proven rather influential in all manner of 21st century writing. From news stories to critical reviews to artist profiles, Klosterman’s often irreverent, self-deprecating, footnote happy smart/funny observations make for highly entertaining reading.

Those familiar with titles like Fargo Rock City, Sex, Drugs and Coco Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live know what to expect when approaching anything Klosterman writes. Because of this, X, a collection of a decade’s worth of miscellaneous musings for a multitude of publications both physical and virtual, provides exactly what fans and like-minded pop cultural savants love the most, copious footnotes and humorous asides included.

In terms of subjects of interest, Klosterman rarely strays from the realm of pop music and, rather incongruously, sports. Rarely thought of as going hand-in-hand within the world of pop culture criticism, Klosterman manages to seamlessly intertwine the two, often within the same piece, if not the same sentence. It’s an approach he has perfected over the last several decades of writing for publications such as Spin, GQ, Grantland and more. Conversational in nature and loaded with often obscure trivialities, his approach makes for easy, personable reading that, much like great acting, is not always a natural pursuit for those who endeavor to do so. That he manages to pull it off so flawlessly is a testament to his strength as both writer and storyteller, as well as cultural observer and armchair humorist.

The common literary element running through the whole of the collection is that of knowing humor and meta-commentary. Take, for example, the winningly-title “Everybody’s Happy When the Wizard Walks By (Or Maybe Not? Maybe They Hate It? Hard to Say, Really)”. Here he expounds on the pop cultural juggernaut that is and was the world of Harry Potter. Subverting the usual expectations, his opening sentence reads: “Here is what I know about Harry Potter: nothing.” He then goes on to say he hasn’t read any of the books, seen any of the films, etc. Yet despite this, the phenomenon itself has so permeated the culture that even in his (ostensibly) uninformed assessments of what the books and films might be about, he ends up coming frighteningly close to the truth. Of course, it’s a typical elitist statement of the “I’m too good for the mainstream tastes of the plebian masses” sort, but Klosterman still manages something of a folksy charm, no doubt the last vestiges of his North Dakota upbringing.

As indicated, it’s not all pop culture. He proves equally passionate when writing about sports; spouting off facts, trivia, and statistics as deftly as he drops references to Ozzy Osborne, KISS and a host of other primarily (mainstream) metal acts. The best of these is “Three-Man Weave”, in which he recounts and then reaffirms the facts surrounding a mythical junior college game he and his brother witnessed in 1988. It’s a gloriously inconsequential story that, due to its inherent insignificance in the grand scheme of things, takes on an incredibly strong meaning. When United Tribes Technical College and North Dakota State University at Bottineau squared off in what should’ve been a one-sided game (UTTC had only five players on their entire team), no one could’ve guessed that something miraculous was about to transpire.

And yet that’s just what happened as Klosterman breathlessly recounts the astoundingly close game that, with only three players to NDSU’s full lineup (two had already fouled out), the UTTC Thunderbirds managed to win the game. It’s like the plot line of an inspirational made-for-TV film about a group of ragtag underdogs from the other side of the tracks who manage to take down the more well-heeled, polished team. To channel Klosterman himself for a moment, it’s as if The Outsiders and The Mighty Ducks (and hell, why not the nerds from Lambda Lambda Lambda or Daniel facing off against the Cobra Kai, or….), making for an improbable narrative played out in real life. It’s simultaneously uplifting and a testament to perseverance in the face of extreme odds. It’s also the perfect choice to open the collection.

Interspersed with sports, film, music, and television analyses are interviews with some of the biggest names in the music business. His rather hilarious interaction with Noel Gallagher (“Where Were You While We Were Getting High?”) shows the former Oasis guitarist to be nothing like his previously purported public image and rather a smart, funny, hungover wise-ass who’s not afraid to cop to his previous shortcomings (spoiler alert: he doesn’t think too highly of either his brother or Be Here Now). Meanwhile, his interviews with Jimmy Page (“Liquid Food”) and Eddie Van Halen (“C’mon Dave, Gimme a Break”), guitar gods both, are equal parts awkward and hilarious. It’s clear that Van Halen exists in his own little world, which fails to stretch much beyond his home studio and that Page has little interest in talking about much of anything.

On the other side of the equation are Stephan Malkmus (“I’m Assuming It’s Going to be Fun”) and Taylor Swift (“Owner of a Lonely Heart”), both of whom prove to be delightfully introspective interviews once Klosterman manages to crack their respective public facades. For Malkmus it was, of all things, sports talk that got him to open up and talk about his time in Pavement, while Swift’s trigger was his preference for her normal, day-to-day speaking voice as Taylor Swift, 20-something, rather than “Taylor Swift” pop superstar. While recorded at specific points in each artist’s career, these interviews offer a broader insight into just what makes each of them tick.

As the collection is culled from a decade’s worth of work, there are a number of items scattered throughout that prove to be either dead wrong or highly laughable in hindsight. His assessment of Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana (“Not a Nutzo Girl, Not Yet a Nutzo Woman (Miley Cyrus, 2008)”) is quite (unintentionally) amusing given her post-Hannah Montana career choices, while his view that Breaking Bad will likely not be remembered as well as, say, The Wire or The Sopranos or even Mad Men (“I Will Choose Free Will (Canadian Readers Not: This Is Not About Rush)”) is simply bizarre given the cultural cache the show has garnered. But as is his style, Klosterman is the first to point these things out in interstitial asides that preface a number of the pieces contained herein. Applying deft wit and a healthy dose of self-awareness, Klosterman forgoes the post-ironic approach in favor of calling an inaccuracy as being just that.

Given the fact that majority of his career is predicated on nostalgia, his analysis of the cultural obsession with nostalgia (“That’s Not How It Happened”) and misapplication of the term is particularly enlightening. Here he argues that what we most often define as being nostalgic is little more than the product of accidental repetition (e.g., feeling nostalgia when you hear a certain song only because, at a given time in your life, you consumed it over and over and over, something modern listeners simply do not do due to the sheer volume of options available). It’s an interesting counter-argument to the otherwise inconsequential debate surrounding the importance of nostalgia from a critical standpoint (something he refers to here as a “soft argument”).

In all, X offers a healthy dose of exactly what you’d expect from a compilation of Klosterman’s writing. As if realizing this, the book’s back jacket features the collection’s full subtitle, A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century. Based on our ever-shrinking social circles, these may be the only types of histories that exist in the near future. If only they could all be as binge-able as Klosterman’s X.

X

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