I. I think I’ve just seen my hero walk past me in a Barnes & Noble. He is almost middle-aged, wearing a ferocious beard with square-rimmed glasses, a white t-shirt stretched over his pudgy frame, normal jeans, squeaky voice (he just asked the clerk where the bathrooms were) and has now walked past the security detectors, out of the doors, and down the hallway. I consider two things: a) it would be slightly creepy to start following him; potentially, if we meet in the bathroom, it will be more weird than cool and b) either way, I absolutely have to do it. I start walking behind him – 10 feet at least, see him get on the escalator, follow at the top like the world’s least subtle spy, and begin to wonder. Is he going to the bathroom? What is he thinking right now? If he sees me standing behind him, will he assume I’m a normal person or a fan? If I get close enough to say something, will I? (How are you? How’s it going? I loved your stuff. You’re my hero. Be mine forever. Okay, probably not). Predictably I get distracted by my thoughts during which he turns a corner, walks out of my sight, and it finally dawns on me that to follow him is an act of lunacy. There would be nothing more awkward than saying any of the things I had thought a moment before. So I stop, walk over to the rows of chairs in front of a podium where he’s scheduled to speak in twenty minutes, sit down, and take a deep breath. I take out my phone and text to my friend, “I think I just stalked Chuck Klosterman down an escalator!”
II. Yes, you read that right. My hero was Chuck Klosterman. I was 17 and 18 once upon a time and had never read a writer who blended pop culture and existentialism like he did, assuring me that matching all of my observations on life to pop culture phenomena was not only forgivable, but logical. To some, Klosterman is a talentless hack who goes for the low-brow every time and is only meaningful to people without ideas or ways to think about life; to those people I would respectfully say fuck you. What separates Klosterman from any other pretentious pop culture essayist is that I truly don’t think he believes what he’s writing all the time; that if someone proved him wrong, he would accept it and go from there. He isn’t trying to enforce his ideas as much as offer them to the universe, a perspective I find enviable. So what if he wrote 5,000 words on why Billy Joel is a genius? He’s just trying to get you to see where he’s coming from, even if you don’t believe him.
But ANYWAY (to borrow a popular Klosterman-ism), at 17 I didn’t have Derrida or Heidegger or even Bangs; I had Chuck, who wrote things I was already thinking and made me think, “Geez, someone is thinking just like I am” (not a unique phenomena) and also, “Geez, I can make a living doing this!” (also not unique). But this was important. This was the kick I needed, heading into my freshman year in college (I bought Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs the summer after high school) on a tepid interest in journalism, a stronger taste for creative writing nascent in my brain but a seemingly otiose thing to pursue formally in college. Why do I need to pay $50,000 to learn how to write a story? I thought, and so I was going to college with no real idea of what I wanted to do. I didn’t know what front of the book or back of the book was, had no concept of AP style, had never heard of the inverted pyramid, thought “hed” was misspelled, thought “lede” was double misspelled, and so on.
I was not a natural journalist. I wanted to write, and Klosterman was that bridge between creativity, fact, and reality-stretching that, to be fair, hundreds of thousands of other teenagers also recognized and said, “I want to be like him!” And so, everything I wrote in my freshman year in college was decidedly Klostermanian, to coin another bullshit phrase. I once wrote a 5,000 essay about attending a Chicago Bulls game in which I compared our front court to albums by the Replacements (a gimmick I’d picked up months earlier, when Klosterman drew analogies between every woman he’d ever been with and members of KISS). I wrote pop culture columns for the paper in which I tossed off analogies like, “This album is slower than Shaq in transition,” “Wilco is like Gram Parsons meets Pavement only they don’t actually want to kill themselves,” and “American Idol explains where our society is at” (yeah, seriously).
These were not good things to write; important maybe for me to realize how absurd my own sense of superiority had come by recoiling from my opinion in printed form, but as far as making the campus think I was awesome, I failed pretty hard. I got a bunch of hate letters, the student group that organizes the concerts at my school (and fails miserably) started a feud with me that has never ended, and to this day I still think a third of the people who actually pay attention to campus media would like to punch me in the face. I get where I erred now, but in 2007, the failure to ingratiate myself to my peers through my dazzling pop culture observations seemed like bitter failure. I was embarrassed then; in retrospect, I’m embarrassed now. Following Chuck had led me nowhere successful; I took my patchwork style, mostly (okay, completely) influenced by his and ditched it for something more pensive, and moved on.
III. I had a minor revelation two years later one night while sitting very stoned in my room, unable to even hold a videogame controller or reach for the bag of Cheetos (SHOCK!). The crisis was such: Being that I didn’t know everything (everything as in every piece of art, thought and history that had ever been created, expressed and occurred), how could I comment on anything? What authority did I have – what authority did anyone have? Was there ever a point I could reach where I could speak authoritatively about anything? As a writer, how could I even pretend I knew what I was talking about, ever?
By accepting my own limitations and ignorance. By being able to be wrong, learning from my mistakes, and going from there. By being un-self-conscious enough to cast away bitterness from going the wrong way and having the strength to go the better way. It didn’t matter whether or not I was absolutely right, as long as I thought I was mostly right and could accept being mostly or absolutely wrong if the time came. It’s like having a guilty pleasure; this revelation was enough to cast away irony and the need to feel guilty for liking something or even needing to justify why this thing is worthy of being objectively liked (see: Slate on Creed, Robert Christgau or Christopher Hitchens on anything). Those Lester Bangs pieces I read where he dissed Exile on Main St. only to laud it as brilliant a year or two later weren’t the sign of a weak writer afraid to stand by his convictions; they were the mark of a strong writer unafraid to look silly if it made him a better person, overall (as much as listening to the Stones can do that).
In this light, Klosterman’s aspirations and my own were much easier to reconcile. Klosterman always maintained he wasn’t trying to get anyone to think a certain way; when ESPN columnist Bill Simmons asked him in an e-mail exchange, “Don’t you think this is disingenuous? You have to know your personality influences people to agree with you,” Klosterman responded that it wasn’t his responsibility to account for the malleability of his audience’s brains, a fair claim considering he wasn’t exactly trying to get anyone to kill the president. When I had written like a mini-Chuck as a freshman, I wanted people to think the way I think, to see the connections I was drawing between culture and life and to accept these connections as omni-present in everything.
Reading Klosterman, I agreed with him so much, his writing mirroring things I was literally writing at the same time (before I bought his book, I wrote a mini essay on why I hated soccer that roughly covered some of the same things that Klosterman’s essay did, or at least I’d like to think so) that I never considered the other truth: Plenty of people think Klosterman is an idiot because they think he is trying to convince them that what he thinks is fact. If he was trying to make his objective case, then yes, his failure to appeal to these people could be seen as a failure of persuasion. But persuasion was never the name of his game; general rhetoric and idea-sharing was. As long as I thought in the latter, I couldn’t lose; if I tried to persuade people, I would always fail.
IV. Back to the hero thing. After hearing Klosterman speak at a panel this summer, right after I had considered stalking him to the bathroom/Starbucks/wherever he was going, I had the opportunity to stand in a line and get my shit signed by him. Normally this never matters to me because you never get face time at a meet n’ greet, so why waste the time for a pleasantry and a scrawled signature? But Klosterman was different. Klosterman had been my hero. He wasn’t anymore, but he had been so important to my development as a writer that I needed to validate my sputtering 18-year old self reading passages from Killing Yourself to Live in a room full of girls by standing in this line for 15-20 minutes and meeting him.
So I waited and waited (making a fool out of myself trying to small talk Nathan Rabin, the semi-genius writer of the A.V. Club who, despite writing an entire book about how awkward his life was, came off smoother than me trying to ask him how to get a job) until it was finally my turn. I put my book down (Sex, Drugs & Cocoa Puffs – the first book I bought from him and the most worn out), and asked him about the NBA, like a ton of other people had, I’m sure. We shot the shit about the draft for a bit, I tried to shoehorn my post-modern conception of the Minnesota Timberwolves (which he brushed off) and then, like a total herb, I busted out the following words:
“I just want to let you know that you were a really important writer for me. I’m really glad I got to hear you speak, because when I was younger, almost everything I wrote was influenced by you in some way. I guess I’m out of my ‘Klosterman’ phase now (full air quotes) but it was a place I needed to be for a while, and I’m glad I was there. Also, can I suck your dick?” Okay, not the last sentence. He looked sheepish and thanked me for the words, then shook my hand, wished me well, gave my book back to me, and let me skip away while thinking, I’m never going to wash this hand (I did about a minute later, after going to the bathroom).
Now, I’m not fooling myself into thinking this was meaningful for him at all; it’s entirely possible he thought, Oh God, another fanboy, tuned me out, and then went back through the motions once I had thankfully gone. It is possible he thought my haircut tragic and my clothes pedantic and that later than night, he told the anecdote of the dork who had wassailed him with love to a UChicago grad student he eventually banged. That much is possible. But it didn’t matter to me. I hadn’t said those words for Chuck – I had said those words for myself, and completing the circle of hero worship by actually meeting the hero was all I needed. I realize that possibility everyone in the line felt the same way, or not at all; it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it happened to me, and that I felt that way, and nothing else.
V. So how did I react in a post-Klosterman world? By freaking out when I unwrapped a copy of his newest book, Eating the Dinosaur, in the office of my fall internship, debated stealing it for about 10 minutes before asking the editor whether or not I could borrow it and being absolutely giddy when she said I could keep it. Goodness gracious! I started reading it on the train and finished it the next morning after staying up all night reading as much as I could, and immediately started it again on my way home later that day.
How is it? Pretty good, I think. It’s sadder than his other books because Klosterman, like Jonathan Lethem (another New Yorker who writes about pop culture and smoking weed), seems to be realizing his limitations as a human being in the techno-driven world we live in, and is becoming increasingly depressed about it. His other books may have seemed mildly opinionated; by contrast, I think he even admits to not really believing most or some of what he says in this one. Doesn’t matter; it’s going to sell a lot of copies, get some fawning/spiteful reviews, be successful for other 17/18-year olds like me, and the cycle will continue. I liked the essays about the Unabomber and the David Koresh/Kurt Cobain comparisons, didn’t fully get the ABBA chapter because I only know “Dancing Queen,” and appreciated what he had to say about football. You may find my criticism very dull; fair enough. At this point, Klosterman doesn’t have to convince me to keep reading, and unless he throws up a giant stink bomb (like the ‘09 Cubs or Season Two of Heroes), I’m going to keep reading.
Later that day after finishing it, I was at a female friend’s, catching up in the years since high school. Her alt-chick roommate stepped in the room and joined the conversation, which turned to the perks of my job. I mentioned getting Klosterman’s new book, and the roommate got excited and asked me how it was. I responded by taking the book out of my bag, opening it to a page, and reading from it out loud as I had when I was 17, when I was 18, and now, 21, to people who I thought had to “get it.” Once a Klostermaniac, always a Klostermaniac.
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