I feel like you can break down Chuck Klosterman’s bibliography into three types of books, so that’s what I’m gonna do. Firstly, you have the “essay” books. These are the books that Klosterman is most famous from and for, including Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota, Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Eating The Dinosaur, among others. They include essays whether on an overarching topic or not, and just his random thoughts and muses from things on music, sports, sociology and such, drawing on an idea from a piece of pop culture. Secondly, we have his narrative fiction novels with Downtown Owl and The Visible Man. These are his foray into fiction storytelling, but still are just basically a different conduit for him to wax about small town America or frame his theories on human interaction through a different book medium. Lastly, are his essays with an overarching theme that ties each essay and chapter together such as I Wear The Black Hat: Grappling With Villains and But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. These have essays that may vary in topic, but are still about the theme at large and contribute to a corner of that picture, hoping to paint something new with all these ideas tackling it from different directions. I’m not here to say anyone is better, it’s just interesting to see the progression Klosterman has taken in how he intends to approach his ideas, since it’s a clear leap from one idea to the next in how he frames these books.
I think “Fargo Rock City” is his best book, and coincidentally or not it’s his first one, mostly because it doesn’t fall into any boring memoir traps and focuses on the topic at hand rather than shoehorning himself into everything. When I first heard it was a memoir I was a little apprehensive because I could care less about how popular music affected one dude because it’s literally the same case for millions around the world. Klosterman always talks about the minutiae and differences about growing up in a small town in the mid-west, but he always does it with a tone where he seems to think he’s the only with this upbringing and that there aren’t millions of people who have grown up the same way he did and he’s not honouring us with this special look into small town lifestyle. Anyways, “Fargo Rock City” was good because he focused on the music and charted how it progressed and grew in and of itself and didn’t relate back to himself that much.
“Sex, Drugs And Cocoa Puffs” isn’t as good as “Fargo Rock City” mainly because it lacked the throughline that his first one possessed. I never really buy into that thing where people say you either love something or you hate it, but with these certain Klosterman essays I find you’ll either 100% agree with his opinion/theory or will 100% think he’s off base and thus think his whole argument is dumb and pointless. I love dissecting pop culture and I love how Klosterman will take a seemingly random thing like The Real World, Pamela Anderson or Saved By The Bell and explore some tangential themes of societal roles, sexual identity and ideas about perceived time and identity. Like, I said before, though, if you’re on board with the idea or piece of pop culture, you’ll love it, and thus I know this book would be most popular with Gen Xers, but I can easily see someone hating it due to his wild posits and smug attitude.
Killing Yourself To Live: 85% Of A True Story is a lot like “Fargo Rock City” in that it’s a memoir framed around rock music essays, except this time it’s a lot more memoir-based and focused on the various women in Klosterman’s life and how his relationships succeeded and failed with them. Suffice to say I could not have cared less, because there’s nothing more I hate than writers writing about their love life because they always treat it like some life or death thing that seems so important to the person living that life, but to us reading it it always feels so trite and vapid.
While his first two books have some connectivity, they’re largely just an excuse to write about whatever. Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade Of Curious People And Dangerous Ideas and Eating The Dinosaur on the other hand are just truly a collection of random essays, and thus they all average out to be pretty average with some good and some not-so good. Again, I gravitate to the music essays, so “IV” is great in that it features a ton of his profiles on bands that are maybe some of my favourite things of his to read.
I was really interested to see how Klosterman would fare entering the realm of novels and while they were fine in and of themselves, they didn’t really offer anything new. Downtown Owl is right within his wheelhouse where he gets to paint a picture of small town life, that he is very good at, even when he’s being weirdly elitist about it. He’s great at connecting you to these characters and this small-town world in such a short amount of time.
The Visible Man has a cool concept of a guy that can make himself invisible, but Klosterman doesn’t take it on a “fun” route or anything like that, rather it’s more about the terror it brings to the humanity of those in possession of this power that you wouldn’t think about on a surface level. I did like this framing device because it was a smart and easy way for Klosterman to tell a story, but also an easy way to get out all his theories and ideas about human behaviour that he normally would just have in a pop culture essay. He was able to siphon his thoughts through a psuedo Hannibal Lecter type character (ie. someone being pried for info while they pontificate about random stuff to get into the head of the interviewer). Unfortunately, the novel is quite short and doesn’t really go anywhere in its story or ends up at any credible philosophical ending.
3. Connective Theme Essays
Klosterman’s most recent books “I Wear The Black Hat” and “But What If We’re Wrong” tackle his essay approach in a whole other way. Each essay is made to build up the overarching theme of the book, villains in the first book and the idea about how we think about certain things in the past or present in the latter, whether it be through his usual haunts of music, sports and so forth or through more scientific examining. I felt that “I Wear The Black Hat” failed because while its parts were good it didn’t really add up to anything new, it just confirmed whatever everybody always knows/thought about the concept of “villains” in modern culture.
“But What If We’re Wrong” takes Klosterman books to another level because he actually goes to experts about things and interviews them, because they know all about the scientific side of things, while Klosterman then covers the sociological and culture side of things. He outlines the thought and backs it up with the scientific thought and then approaches it with his idea and what he believes it says about a certain thing.