Pop-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman takes a walk on the dark side | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Pop-culture essayist Chuck Klosterman takes a walk on the dark side

Author Chuck Klosterman poses in this undated handout photo. His fourth book of essays, "I Wear The Black Hat," tackles the concept of villainy and was released in Canada on July 9. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Richard Fleischman
July 26, 2013 - 3:00 AM

TORONTO - Asked simply to list the topics he knows most about, it's perhaps no surprise that pop-culture savant Chuck Klosterman would use a 1990 episode of a long-concluded TV show to illustrate his answer.

"Have you seen the episode of 'Cheers' where Cliff goes on 'Jeopardy' and every category is perfect?" he asks, perched on a plush couch in Toronto's chi-chi Drake Hotel. "The categories would probably be Kiss, the history of the NFL, the history of the NBA, dinosaurs, drugs and alcohol, and the films of Richard Linklater. If it was those categories, I would feel very confident."

He's still probably selling himself short.

With eight books of fiction and non-fiction, plus articles in places as varied as the sports-centric Grantland website and the venerable New York Times Magazine, the 41-year-old Klosterman has established himself as one of the leading cultural voices of his generation. He has assailed soccer, rhapsodized about Abba, analyzed friendships with serial killers, and compared the frontman of alt-rockers Weezer to American politician Ralph Nader. Now, with his just-released fourth essay collection, "I Wear The Black Hat," he takes a hard look at villains in the way he knows best: through the once-dismissed prism of pop culture.

"Pop culture used to be a real pejorative term. And then it moved out of the pejorative category into sort of more of the interesting category, and now it seems to be the only culture America creates anymore," he says. "It seems to be the only culture we have."

Curiously enough, the purest distillation of villainy Klosterman cites is a Canadian — Snidely Whiplash, the black-hatted, mustachioed, damsel-entrapping foil to the heroic Mountie Dudley-Do-Right, and one of the first villains Klosterman engaged with as a youth.

"Mostly, I think the idea of tying women to railway tracks is this crazy bizarre thing," he says, laughing.

But it also highlights the crux of his thesis: that a villain is the one who knows the most and cares the least. It's the argument that carries him through analysis of a fascinating cross-section of people, with madmen and criminals — Adolf Hitler, Ted Bundy, Jerry Sandusky — co-mingling among the likes of Taylor Swift, Bill Clinton, Seth MacFarlane, and Muhammad Ali.

"In North America, the way we understand everything is through storytelling. It's how we've decided we're going to work through problems of morality and ethics and the right way to live," he says. "Media has changed in a way that has made these problems less sophisticated. We want things to be more straightforward. So the end result is that someone is the good guy and someone is the bad guy. Do I believe someone can be wholly good or wholly bad? I believe it's possible, I just haven't met any of them."

Klosterman's look at the thorny topic of morality is unsurprising, based on his most recent works. In 2011, he wrote "The Visible Man," an existential novel that deals with identity and privacy in a postmodern world. A year later, he took over the New York Times's "Ethicist" column, where he doles out advice on any issue of personal mores.

"People think I am claiming that I'm the most ethical man in America or North America. That's not how it is. Thing is, if I'm not emotionally invested in the problem, I can think about it rationally and objectively and I can create the ethical framework that seems appropriate and say, 'This is how someone should act.' That's not necessarily how I would act in the scenario," he says, admitting that he too can have villainous tendencies. "For me, it's working through non-fiction thought problems. I enjoy that, it's interesting to me."

Writing about his interests — mixed in with the good timing to start writing near the rise of the Internet, he adds — is what got him where he is now. He started in newspapers, at broadsheets like the Akron Beacon Journal, where he decided to write a book about what he liked, which he was convinced was going to be so niche that only an academic press would bother reading. The book eventually became his successful debut "Fargo Rock City," tracking heavy metal's history as reflected by his own North Dakota adolescence.

"I wouldn't say I led the charge, but at the same time I didn't feel like there were a lot of people doing the same thing ... there was no template," he says.

"I always felt that there's always a lot of great writing about the arts, but the problem is that writing tends to be done at the apex of the media hierarchy. So they're dealing with music and books and film and television that most people are not consuming, so they have no context for it. ... So I wanted to consciously find things that everybody has a shared collective context for."

That tactic has earned him a wide fanbase, but also a share of detractors, who criticize him for being too introspective and navel-gazing. Klosterman isn't offended by the charge.

"This is true of the good and the bad reviews — people have a real, personal relationship with (my work) in a way that I can't fully relate to but I'm glad has happened," he says.

"I think most essayists or critics start with a thesis, and then they attempt to prove it. They want to persuade people to see the world as they do. I'm not like that; I'm not interested in persuading anybody of anything," he says. "I think of things that are interesting to me, and then I explore why they're interesting."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2013
The Canadian Press

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