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Chuck Klosterman - New Book but the Song Remains the Same
It's time to throw up our rock hands and give a "Woo hoo hoo!" for Chuck Klosterman and his new novel "The Visible Man," the seventh book by America's sharp, young rock music critic, pop-culture expert, zeitgeist psychoanalyst, and vicarious party buddy.
Chuck Klosterman (left)
It was a good day all around for Klosterman. He released his book nationwide, the New York party was in a place that had to feel supremely comfortable to him (a rock club), the website www.Grantland.com has raced to the top of everyone's must-read list, and soccer took a kick in the testicles when New York City couldn't drum up support for building a soccer dome in Brooklyn Bridge Park despite earmarking close to $1 million in taxpayer money as an incentive, so the project died.
Though I personally loved playing the game (because I was good at it), even I have to admit Klosterman's essay on his distaste for soccer was one of the high points of "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs," so if Chuck orders Jack and gingers all around to celebrate soccer getting the boot in Brooklyn, I'll have one. After all, one reason I like Klosterman's writing (among many) is because it helps you not take yourself and what you love too seriously. (On that note, you should see what he says about golf . . .)
That was the release party in a nutshell as well; it didn't take itself too seriously and was easygoing fun as a result. It was what I like to call a hometown show. Before I work with a band as their music lawyer, I make sure to see them "at home" as well as on the road. As a lawyer, you go to the road show to see how well and how quickly the band converts new fans. But you go to the home show to see what they are really like, how they act in their comfort zone. That's when you can expect to see them at their best and most excited.
So holding the event at the Public Assembly bar and rock club in Williamsburg seemed quintessential Klosterman. It was a rock club, not a book store, and with its brick walls and minimalist décor it was more on the CBGB's side of rock than Crash Mansion, well-worn but comfortable, with just enough dingy-chic to appeal to the crowd that likes that. The marquee is really a blackboard outside where written in chalk it reads "Appearing tonight - 7 pm - CHUCK KLOSTERMAN . . . 8 pm Amphibian Lark . . ."
***Insert voice of Jeanine, ersatz manager of Spinal Tap*** "If I told them once I told them 1,000 times - Put 'Amphibian Lark' first and 'Chuck Klosterman' last . . . but we've got a bigger dressing room, though…"
Music-industry types mingle with software designers and rock-band bassists, lots of denim, flannel and geek-chic glasses. It's a college party for about 100 30-somethings. The club played Kasabian for the pre-event music. The bartender even made a special drink for the party, an "Invisible Hombre," a dreadful-tasting mess that ruined the great flavor of tequila by overwhelming it with the bitterness of soda water and far too much lemon juice. Substitute Sprite for the soda water, add a splash of orange not lemon, and call it a "Sticky Vicky" instead. (Read Chuck's new book and you'll get my joke about the name when you do . . .)
For his part, Chuck dressed like he was going to a gig. He wore a Jack Daniels T-shirt, jeans, hoodie, and intentionally mismatched Converse All-stars - one shoe was pink, the other blue. Everything could have passed for North Dakota except the shoes, they screamed Brooklyn.
The event wasn't so much a "party" and definitely was not a "reading." Usually at readings of this sort, we listen while the author actually reads some selections from the new book (and maybe some old famous stuff of his) and then takes questions from the audience. When I do my readings, I do a little more - I have a house band play a few songs here and there, and I invite special guest writers that I interview in between pieces I read. It's a bit of a variety show, but it's exciting and publishing types always tell me afterward, "we have to start doing that . . ."
Instead, Chuck was interviewed for about 45 minutes by writer John Sellers. While I like the idea, I think the execution could have been better. Chuck answered mostly predictable vanilla softballs lobbed by John: talk about the book, talk about Grantland, who plays you in your movie, what band are you . . . that sort of thing, nothing really introspective. There was even a point where the hipster quotient went through the ceiling when Sellers asked Chuck about both Pavement and Stephen Malkmus in the same breath. I'm shocked they didn't sneak in a reference to Conor Oberst, the nerdcore movement, or Pete's Candy Store.
Personally, I was hoping for some insights into Chuck's writing process as opposed to whether he could beat Bill Simmons in arm wrestling. Still, we got a few nuggets from Chuck. Most importantly, Chuck feels that in reviews of his work people's perceptions of him are accurate, which means he's genuinely showing us himself in his writing, which all great writers do . . . they can't help but tell the truth. (The same was said about Hemingway and Hunter Thompson - good company.)
Secondly, while he thinks the popularity of his books roughly parallels the career arc of the band Oasis - a good thing, because they made enough money to build a full-sized soccer pitch in the back yard and keep the neighbors up all night between the noise and floodlights - Chuck thinks his place in culture is that of "Weezer or Dinosaur Jr." That tells us that despite his monumental talent, he's still a humble realist at heart.
"Who do I want to be?" he rhetorically asks himself, "The Beatles, of course, but come on now . . ."
The crowd laughs approvingly, but this also is a window to the soul. You have to respect and admire the singular dedication it takes to be a truly great writer. There is a tightrope a writer walks: you spend the rest of your life getting "less dumb" at your profession. The minute you're satisfied with yourself and your talent, you're finished as a writer. So two sports metaphors leap to mind:
1. Larry Bird - "I want the ball." It's 1985. It's a regular season game against - it doesn't really matter actually - and the Celtics are losing by one with four seconds left. K.C. Jones calls the Celtic final timeout. He starts to diagram a shot for Kevin McHale, when Bird cuts him off.
"I want the ball," he says.
Okay - do what Larry says. Get him the inbounds pass. Of course, Bird drills a dagger at the buzzer, and the Celtics win; and
2. Ken Griffey, Jr. - In the 1995 American League Division Series playoff series against the Yankees he told his teammates, "Jump on my back, and I will carry you." Five games later, there he is sliding across home plate in the bottom of the ninth, before being doused in champagne minutes later.
In order to be a truly great writer, that's exactly the kind of disciplined attitude and killer instinct he or she needs bring to the keyboard every time. And that's Chuck - original, passionate and most importantly, an observant eye. That's what it takes to be a gifted writer. As young 20-something party-goer Corbin Schoch put it, "He makes you relate to situations differently. He makes you think. You get a fresh perspective, no censorship."
As for the new book, "The Visible Man," Klosterman is advancing and further exploring the concepts proposed by H.G. Wells and other sci-fi writers about what people would do to others if they were unseen. Most interestingly (to a writing geek like me) it's written in epistolary form.
"What's epistolary?" you ask. You know an epistle is a letter (from the Greek). So an epistolary is a book written in the form of a collection of letters or memoirs or writings of several different characters and points of view. Two excellent examples include Bram Stoker's "Dracula," which is written as a collection of Jonathan Harker's journal entries, Mina Harker's diary, Lucy's diary, Ven Helsing's notes, etc. Others include Stephen King's "Carrie," a compilation of court testimony, psychiatrist's notes, newspaper articles and the like, and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." It's a choice a writer makes when he decides which point of view to write from, first person, third person, etc.
As such, "The Visible Man" is a collection of notes and transcripts of a therapist who gets a man who can make himself invisible to others (through use of a light-refracting suit, aerosol spray and cream) on her couch. It would have been fascinating to hear why (and how) Chuck chose this form of POV, whether it was to pay homage to the genre (lots of preeminent sci-fi and horror fiction novels successfully employed the format), or whether it was a solution to the difficulty many nonfiction writers face (myself included) in writing characters and dialogue that is completely fictional.
It's a fascinating choice of "point of view" as we call it in the profession, and it's problematic in one respect. Chuck also told us in the interview that one of his friends got "confused" and told him that "at first I thought you were the therapist, but then I thought you were the invisible man."
Therein lies my concern with the book as well. Chuck's writing style is so singular . . . his voice as a writer so inimitably Chuck Klosterman . . . that it shines through almost too brightly, possibly detracting from the believability of the characters. The analytic hyper-manicism of the visible, yet unseen, man is believable, but the same analytic hyper-manicism of the inexperienced and clearly overmatched therapist is not quite so accessible, and it creates a problem when reading the book . . . you still hear Chuck's inimitable voice shining through, in this case too brightly. You can't have all your characters sound the same; the true skill lies in making each character "their own self" as Dan Jenkins would have put it, not just memorable but indelible. Quentin Tarantino may have written Jules Winfield, Butch Coolidge, Winston Wolf and Mia Wallace to be smart and hip, but they are all their own distinct voice.
That being said, I find writing fiction the hardest of the skills a writer needs to learn, much harder than even poetry (well truly great poetry. Any venereal-diseased badger can write free-verse rants that pass for what dingbats and progressive minded Dadaists call poetry these days. You have to make someone complete imaginary seem perfectly real and speak with their own voice, not yours. It’s far harder than it sounds, and even a truly great mind and voice like Chuck’s still need just a little more time and a little more practice to perfect the craft.
Moreover, Hollywood could never resist the temptation to tinker with the potential script, adding car chases, hauntings, much more sex and fiery explosions chasing people down hallways.
Still, “The Visible Man” does what Chuck always does to us – he makes us think and rethink, meaning that we 1) think about things we didn’t realize, but could/should have, and 2) rethink things which we thought we knew so well, but didn’t see the other side of.
Has Chuck given us what he calls a "universal cliché" through his invention of a light-refractive "cloaking suit" and an "aerosol spray" and "cream" in order for an individual become unseen? After all, he calls H.G. Wells' time machine (created for the first time in "The Time Machine") a "universal cliché." He explains at length that a person whose body would be truly invisible would also be blind. (You can't see unless certain parts of your eyes are solid.) So according to Klosterman, science dictates you need an artificial, non-biological solution to becoming invisible to others. Maybe he has broken new ground others will explore more deeply. Maybe that was one reason he wrote the book and explored the themes he chose. (That being said, "the suit," "the cream" and "the spray" sound like excerpts from Jeff Novitsky's grand-jury testimony against Barry Bonds.)
Only time will tell if the light-refractive cloaking suit catches on in mainstream culture and we get offshoots and further explorations of the idea from other writers. If that was the intention, do you have to respect the guy who tries to become truly timeless as a writer for trying? Hell, yes! Besides, he made me crack up when he discussed the worst thing about being unseen - pigeons constantly flying into you!
Happily, the song remains the same for Chuck. After seven books and 11 years, he's still what we liked in the first place: an intense, brilliant A-type who loves rock music, sports, partying and writing. And he's damn good at all four, so what's not to like? You know you'd do that if you could, and that's why we love Chuck. We can live vicariously through not him, but his writing, yet we still get good glimpses of him.
And surprise! We all had a great time and we didn't even need a transcendent moment with speedballs, hookers or albino musk oxen. Even if there were, I wouldn't tell you because the best writers know when to "not say shit" about what they actually did see. With Chuck, it's all about the writing, and it's refreshing to know that in some places witticisms and poignant observations are still the coin of the realm and someone out there is fighting to keep people away from their X Box, Internet porn or books written from the vampire's point of view.
"The Visible Man," by Chuck Klosterman, Scribner, 230 pages, $25 (hardcover), ISBN 978-1-4391-8446-2.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.