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Chuck Klosterman book tour: “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)”

July 12, 2013

This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week is the release of Chuck Klosterman‘s new book, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined). From the title one might get the impression that this book is unlike the rest of Klosterman’s non-fiction oeuvre – generally a collection of essays without common theme, that are each part memoir, part though experiment, part pop culture critique. According to Klosterman, writing something different was in fact his original intention with I Wear The Black Hat. “My first plan was that this book would be 500 pages, super-comprehensive, no memoir.” As he wrote, though, the book got farther and farther away from that intention, becoming less thematic and more memoir. As the the A.V. Club succinctly puts it, “Klosterman considers villains, but not really.” Or, as Chuck himself said, “If for some reason you are here having hated every book I’ve ever written, don’t buy [this one].”

“Here” was Book Court, a fairly robust independent book store in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and Wednesday night’s stop on Klosterman’s current book tour. [Aside: Book Court routinely has top-notch author events and was named the best book store in NYC by the Village Voice.] At this reading, Klosterman was at his Chuck-iest. The section he chose to read from, called “The Problem of Overrated Ideas,” was, by his own admittance, “a little more memoir-y than the rest of the book.” It was the story of his personal arch-enemy, major league baseball pitcher Rick Helling (originally touched upon briefly in this Esquire column from 2004). Klosterman spent just 15 minutes introducing the book and reading the excerpt, after which he took questions from the crowd for over an hour. Answering questions in this kind of setting is Klosterman at his finest. (I’ve seen him live twice before – once at a Gelf Varsity Letters event, and once at Barnes & Noble during his book tour for Eating the Dinosaur. Each time I left feeling like I got away with something, getting to see such a great performer for free.) At this stage in his career, Klosterman – most renowned for his take on celebrity and pop culture – has become a pop culture icon himself, one of the few, if not the only writer, who has attained such a status. Many authors, from all genres, are famous; for example, most people have heard of John Grisham, Stephen King, Jackie Collins and Malcolm Gladwell. Each of these writers, however, is famous for his or her work, whereas Klosterman is famous for his voice. He has been dubbed the “voice of his generation,” dating all the way back to his first essay collection, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs. (Ironically, “his” generation is not his at all, as Klosterman is now past 40.) Klosterman – who thinks about people, reality, and existence, all through a pop culture lens – must be hyper-aware of his place in this world. The way his brain works, it’s a wonder he doesn’t spend all of his time thinking about how he got to where he is and what it means for him to be there. Regardless, it’s apparent in his writing and in the performances he puts on in places like Book Court (and that’s what they are – performances) that he is keenly aware of what makes his fans come back over and over again. It hardly matters what he writes or speak about – in this case it’s villains, but it could have been television, or politicians, or natural disasters (or, better yet, sex, drugs, or cocoa puffs) – and as long as it’s in the now-well-known Klosterman voice, the readers will follow. Going back to that A.V. Club review, which isn’t especially favorable (they give the book a B- grade), you get a sense that I Wear The Black Hat is more of Klosterman doing Klosterman:

Regardless of the stated topic, Chuck Klosterman’s voice is the real draw of every book he’s written. His non-fiction works (as well as two novels to date) have recognizable recurring tics: dilations on perceived reality, an argumentative insistence that frequently derided pop-culture objects are, in fact, great (assertions more or less in favor of the Eagles), segues from one seemingly unrelated topic into another. 

I Wear The Black Hat is ostensibly a series of essays considering how a nebulous “we” think about villains, but the object seems to be is to allow Klosterman to riff at will on whatever happens to be on his mind: Wilt Chamberlain, the Monica Lewinsky scandal, serial killers…

The A.V. Club may not especially care for it, but I – and I suspect the vast majority of Chuck’s fans – do. Moreover, this is why the live Q&A format, with no subject off limits, is an ideal forum Klosterman. (Especially a live Q&A in Brooklyn. Klosterman, playing to his crowd in his adopted borough, says: “I love taking questions in Brooklyn,” because “people here are just kind of smarter. It’s true; this is like where young people go when they’re smart. There’s smart people in every city, but to live here you either have to be pretty smart or extremely hard working. You don’t find any lazy slackers here because they go broke or they live in Williamsburg or something.  It’s really difficult to be here and not sort of have a real engagement with culture, so I’m looking forward to real insight tonight, and I’ll take that insight and lob it back at you, so fire away.” Fire away we did. Just give him a topic, let his brain start to work and get out of the way. Chuck is like a toy that way; wind him up and let him go.) Here are some of the more memorable moments from the Book Court Q&A:

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On what motivates him to write:

“In some ways I have perverse desires, like food, shelter.… [but ] I do not want to have a job. I grew up on a farm, I saw my parents and my brother work, and thought, ‘I don’t want a life like this. I want a life where I just sit around and go, ‘what is reality?’’… Though writing’s hard, I don’t see it as work. I would rather write a book than spend one day moving furniture. Also … I feel like my mind is like a ball of yarn. I don’t know, maybe everyone’s mind is like this. All the thoughts are like the strings, and they’re all rolled up against each other, intertwined. And the process of writing is straightening them out. Like that’s what writing is – typing out the yarn of your mind into a straight line. And because I’m interested in the experience of being alive, I’m interested in consciousness, and I’m interested in, you know, why do I think the things I think and, more importantly, why do those thoughts cause me to feel the way I feel, it’s almost as if I don’t understand things until I write about them.”

On the future of television:

“It’s possible that this new golden age of television that we’ve experienced – and I hope I’m wrong about this – it’s possible that it may have peaked…. People who make TV shows are not going to be in a position to have that slow of a build [as on shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad]…. I think that HBO and Showtime and FX and AMC are going to have to make a pretty dangerous commitment – they’re going to have to say to somebody I’m going to give you three years to make a show – not just two, that’s not enough, because the second season is like where Mad Men really got interesting – somebody’s going to have to say, ‘I’m giving you three years to make this show and it doesn’t matter what the ratings are or how strange it is, we’re giving you that amount of time,’ and I can’t see that happening necessarily, there’s just too much at stake. So, well, maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am.”

On the new Kanye West album, Yeezus:

“… In that interview [with Jon Caramanica of the New York Times] he said things like, ‘I am the nucleus.’ And it’s like he’s a crazy person. But he is the nucleus…. There’s going to be a period in 10 or 15 years (or maybe less) when all of a sudden he’s like a joke to people, and it’s going to take like 25 or 30 years before people realize how fortunate it was that we experienced this apex of someone’s creative ability at this period of time, and this is the record that people are going to use as an example of that. So I like it.”

On Tim Tebow:

After citing Tebow’s exceptional winning record with the Denver Broncos: “He’s definitely the most – of the recent times – the most successful quarterback who everyone thinks is bad.”

On free will:

“My growing fear is that I can’t, and perhaps no one here can, control what they think, control what they feel, control what they believe. I think when I was 21 I definitely did, when I was 31 I was not so sure, and now that I’m 41 I’m pretty confident that I don’t possess the ability to actually control what I think. It’s all these other things in play – the way I was raised, the people I surrounded myself with, the condition of my life in a given time, the strength of my memory or the weakness of my memory, biological factors that are totally beyond my control … so even if we believe in free will we’re looking at a fraction of what our ability to really make decisions.”

On whether an idea can exist if there is no lexicon to explain it:

“The short answer is yes … The long answer: You know, if you’ve never taken mushrooms before, and someone’s trying to convince you to do so, they will say something to you, they will say, ‘Take these and you’ll be able to think whatever you want.’ And you’ll be like, ‘Well, I can already do that. You’re not convincing me.’ Then you take them and – it’s true.”

On writing fiction:

“I care about characters way more than plot…. To me, plot mechanics only matter in the present tense. I’m interested in ideas and themes; they come from characters. So what I’ll do is I’ll make people that are sort of similar to people I’ve met, or that exist in life – people I’ve interviewed, people I’ve made up by combining other people – and have them say the things I always wished they said when I interviewed them. I can’t make up quotes, but with fiction that’s all it is – people saying things that I wish they spoke. People complain about those books [his two novels] sometimes. They say all the characters talk exactly like me. Well, no shit – I wrote it…. and that’s what I’m gonna do forever.”

On Anthony Weiner:

“When you think about it, the weirdness of wanting to show you cock to someone you’ve never met before is not quite as perverted as the idea that, ‘you know who should run things? Me. My ideas are so good that everyone should just agree that I should be the person in charge.’ That is the craziest thing…. So I’m not surprised that a person who has that thought has the other thought.”

On being an interviewer:

“Interviewing is not that hard. [But] I guess it must be hard because a lot people are bad at it.”

And finally, to a questioner who’d already read the book and asked whether he could ask a question that contained a spoiler:

“A spoiler? It’s a non-fiction book! Spoiler: it ends.”

And that’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.

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