by Fern Diaz
by Chuck Klosterman
273 pages, Scribner
“This is a non-autobiographical work of fiction”
Chuck Klosterman is practically a genius; an enlightened socio-cultural philosopher who asks all the right questions and actually succeeds at uncovering meaning in the most seemingly insignificant aspects of pop culture. He’s a savant, who, by exploring his own cultural obsessions and sharing his theories, allows us to understand things we didn’t even know about ourselves.
I’m sorry. Did that make you gag a little? I apologize. It’s just that up until recently, I was under the impression that everyone found this to be more or less true. Of course, you already know that this is only a widely-held belief amongst morons–that in fact, most people obsessively hate his essays and his arrogance and don’t find him to be amazing at all.
Unfortunately for both you and me, I actually really do.
At this point, I have come to realize that 10 percent of the people who read my work will always love it (no matter how bad it is), and 10 percent will always hate it (not matter how good it is). – CK
The fact that his most acclaimed book can often be found in airport bookstores next to Tuesdays With Morrie, or that in every interview he sounds like a douchebag who might be smarter than you, only adds to the difficulty of being an uncloseted fan in a time when admiring his method and conclusions has become practically taboo.
Which brings me to the bright side of my unapologetic introduction: Klosterman’s latest, the novel Downtown Owl, is a breakthrough masterpiece, if only because it may be the only thing he’s written that readers will find almost impossible to hate.
“He’s a one-man prose polluter, a living WMD employing the dummy ass-head as a delivery system. And I will forever hate this ass-creature for the pain and suffering he has caused me.”
For his latest experiment, Klosterman decided to stop writing about what he knows (our fascination with Britney, the parallels between Reality Bites and The Empire Strikes Back) and, instead, write about what he knows better (the loneliness and snow patterns of small-town North Dakota). This was perhaps the worst and best idea – a bit ambitious to make a leap to fiction that won’t have anything to do with what you’re known for, but a smooth move if everyone who is still reading is sick of your hypothetical questions and endless footnotes about sports games no one watched.
Klosterman’s Owl, North Dakota, is a down town. The book tells the story of four of its residents and their innermost thoughts: Horace is a widower who takes pleasure in the details – hot coffee, old friends. Julia is new in town, a school teacher at her first job who quickly finds there is nothing to do in Owl except drink and listen to different people tell the same stories, usually while drunk.
Then there’s Mitch, a high school student, who fantasizes about killing his English teacher/football coach and sleeping, and John, said English teacher, who has sex with several of his students.
Horace: She’ll never be alone, thought Horace. She’ll be engaged before June, this drunken new history teacher. She probably wants to get married, because she doesn’t want to be alone. Everybody assumes it’s so terrible to be alone. It’s not. Horace had been alone for half his life, and it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He knew he could never say that aloud, and (of course) he missed his wife, and (of course) he had loved her, and (of course) the day he died was the worst day he had ever know. But he had grown to love the emptiness of his house even more. He loved that it was just a collection of rooms, and that there were never any questions to answer, and that he could design his own rules for being alive.
It is 1983, and nothing big or exciting has happened since the big high school mascot controversy of the 1960s. It seems as though the residents of Owl are ok with that, because they do nothing to change it, even though, at the core, being aware of their own inaction is probably what makes their flatlined existence so miserable (and relatable).
Mitch: “Why do we get out of bed” Mitch wondered. “Is there any feeling better than being in bed? What could possibly be better than this? What is going to happen in the course of my day that will be an improvement over lying on something very soft, underneath something very warm, wearing only underwear, doing absolutely nothing, all by myself?” Every day, Mitch woke to this line of reasoning: Every day, the first move he made outside his sheets immediately destroyed the only flawless part of his existence.”
Unsurprisingly, the all-knowing Chuck Klosterman can’t help but be ther narrator here too, and keeps all that classic Chuck in–the football metaphors, the arguments about the value of “understanding” Bruce Springsteen, the pot. What’s shocking is that he finally wrote about other people and events in a way that didn’t treat them as mirrors upon which to examine himself. As it turns out, that makes one like him more.
John: “John Laidlaw did not know why he did the things he did. Does anyone?”
Klosterman has created these characters in order to analyze them. And yes, us too. As Julia says at one point, Everybody is different, but everybody is the same. …Reading it, that wisdom won’t make you cringe as much as it would have if he’d said it in an interview. Read more excerpts here.
Fern Diaz is a contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. This is her first appearance in these pages. She tumbls here.
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