Sympathy for the hipster devil

Why do we love to hate to love Chuck Klosterman?

Mark Holcomb

Within the past year or so, explicating one’s irrational hatred of Chuck Klosterman has vied with actually hating Chuck Klosterman as a choice means for eager alt-journo types to make a name for themselves à la, well, Chuck Klosterman.

Last October, on the heels of an excruciatingly mean-spirited (and hilarious) Klosterman author-photo slide-show on Slate, Boston’s weekly The Phoenix ran a long, confessional piece in which author Camille Dodero expressed kinship with fans who “alternately love and hate” Klosterman’s work, and copped to plans for waylaying the 30-something North Dakotan with a particularly cruel New York Press assessment of him from 2003. (Alas, Klosterman’s publicist kiboshed Dodero’s scheduled interview with him before she could spring her trap.) Wishy-washy as ever, the venerable Associated Press weighed in around the same time with an egregiously balanced profile, in which Klosterman delivered such priceless koans as, “I’m predisposed to see meaning in things that might seem meaningless.” Join the club of most of us, bro.

Klosterman, who’s appearing at this year’s annual Vegas Valley Book Festival, has been a polarizer since at least 2002, when he struck gold as a pop-culture champion with his opinionated, contrarian, David Byrne-endorsed memoir Fargo Rock City. His subsequent move to New York City, where he landed plum columnist gigs with Spin (from which he was apparently canned), Esquire and ESPN and wrote three more books, seemingly gave credence to his status as the “voice of his generation”—a label surely coined by his publisher’s PR department—even as it made dissing him a local sport. Klosterman’s folksy Midwestern earnestness is the ideal fodder for a city brimming with jaded, eager-to-displease celebrity-watchers who love nothing more than to sniff out poseurs and publicly gnaw their guts out.

Hence Klosterman’s special status with the editors of Gawker, a Manhattan gossip blog given to such Chuck-centric headlines as “If There Really Is a Cult of Klosterman, We’d Like to Provide the Kool-Aid” and “Asshole Whose Entire Career Based on Appreciating the Lowbrow Wants to Pull Up the Ladder.” The site even features a handy, eerily accurate Chuck Klosterman Opinion Generator, which purports to make “Chuck Klosterman’s opinions available without the use of Chuck Klosterman.”

It almost makes you feel sorry for the guy. New York is tough enough on its homegrown media-maven wannabes; the ones who gravitate Gotham-ward from west of the Mississippi or north of the Mason-Dixon Line arrive with virtual bull’s-eyes on their backs. But while some anti-Klosterman vitriol can be attributed to boneheaded provincialism, The Phoenix’s Dodero and even Gawker chalk up much of it to rank professional jealousy. That seems right—Klosterman has made a career for himself that most aspiring zeitgeist pulse-takers would die for, and appears to earn a ridiculously good living at it while many of his detractors (and fans) toil at similar work for free. What’s not to envy?

Well, the thoroughness with which he adapted to his new hometown, for one. As Slate’s pictorial smackdown brutally emphasized, Klosterman went from corn-fed country boy to urban yuppie in record time, with no apparent awareness of the contradiction between his aw-shucks literary persona and the aura of privilege his smarty-pants glasses, artfully distressed designer jeans and $200 haircut project. Assimilation is hardly a punishable offense, least of all in New York City, and Klosterman’s attempts at blending into a hostile environment may well be the most genuine thing about him. But along with the requisite uniform, he also adopted—or nurtured—an alienating/alienated sense of entitlement that belies his regular-guy roots. Klosterman condescendingly subtitled his second book, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs (2003), a “low culture manifesto,” while in an October 2006 Esquire disquisition on reality-TV staple Survivor—at the height of anti-Klostermania, mind—he self-servingly dismissed the show thusly: “Every season, the mediocre majority unifies to destroy the unrivaled.”

Cry us a f--kin’ river already. This toxic cocktail of thinly veiled self-pity and gormless elitism would go down easier if Klosterman exhibited anything like true love for the so-called low-culture artifacts his reputation rests on. Instead, these self-conscious preoccupations—heavy-metal hair bands, Britney Spears, Peanuts and the like—smack of stale schtick, and, worse, he behaves like he invented the form. (Hardly. Writer Robert Warshow was taking comic books and gangster flicks seriously back when Klosterman’s mom and dad were still in diapers.) Moreover, he shows few signs of moving beyond them, or exhibiting any kind of growth at all. Little wonder TV’s Lost is one of Klosterman’s faves, albeit hyperbolically and equivocally: It revolves around shabbily conceived characters and dead-end plot contrivances and, like Klosterman himself, amounts to a supremely vacuous conundrum.

Still, expending hatred on him is a hobby best left to others, because to my mind there’s real reason to feel sympathy for Chuck Klosterman. His age and ambition have put him in a unique position few of us would truly covet: He’s stuck between a generation that takes pretty much everything seriously and one that considers everything mock-worthy piffle; between hick charm and hipster chic; and between the intelligent, navel-gazing fanboy he is and the intellectual heavyweight he’s dying to be. In some sense he simply showed up for the party too late, and that’s probably what pisses people off most about him.

So here’s a scary thought, then—maybe he’s the voice of his generation after all.

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