This review originally appeared in the BOULDER WEEKLY
The Cult of Klosterman
By Vince Darcangelo
Chuck Klosterman is having an existential crisis. He's considering the deaths of two members of the Allman Brothers Band when his thoughts meander toward more pressing issues, like the state of music criticism in the age of cheaply produced promotional CDs.
"Right now, most rock journalism is just mild criticism with a Q&A attached," he writes.
This is potentially dangerous territory to tread for someone who makes his living as a rock critic. And he's only on page 91 of Killing Yourself to Live, his third and most-recent book.
Killing Yourself to Live—released last July and published in paperback last week—is ostensibly about the role of death in the rock 'n' roll pantheon and how, for many musicians, the greatest career move they could have made was to exit stage left. But that's not the real story here. The book is in actuality a road-trip romance with a hard rock soundtrack and an undercurrent of pop-culture philosophizing. As with his first two books, Fargo Rock City and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Klosterman dissects popular culture with the razor edge of Derrida and the self-awareness of Eggers. Along the way he explains why Radiohead's Kid A might very well have predicted 9/11, but mostly he works through his relationship issues with three women—and, of course, measures the worth of rock journalism.
Which brings us back to the existential crisis. What is the value of modern-day rock criticism when writers simply "make a living reviewing [their] mail"? Admittedly, my own editions of his books are advance promotional copies. If you want to understand the significance of this... well, you'll just have to read Klosterman yourself.
What you need to know now is that Chuck Klosterman is coming to Boulder, discussing and signing Killing Yourself to Live on Wednesday, June 14, at the Boulder Book Store. He's got a new book, Chuck Klosterman IV, due out in September, and he's currently working on his first novel.
Klosterman just might be the most important writer of our generation, mining a deeper-than-expected meaning from the seemingly disposable Gen X culture crush of MTV, '70s reruns and The Real World. Humorous and insightful, significant and temporal, his writings will make you laugh, think, reconsider G'n'R tribute bands and make you hunger for sugary breakfast cereal. Most likely, you'll swear that he's writing about your life, because Chuck Klosterman may very well be writing all our memoirs, whether he realizes it or not.
Vince Darcangelo: Is it strange for you doing tours and interviews, coming from the other side as a journalist?
Chuck Klosterman: I really enjoy the actual reading and meeting with the book buyers. That's fun and interesting. I'm always nervous no one is going to come, so whenever anybody does I'm always pleasantly surprised. The traveling drives me crazy. I don't like to travel. I really don't. I'm a stationary person. I hate to complain about it because I should be happy, I guess, that I get to do it, but the thing is everything really does sort of become exactly the same, which is the cliché thing people say whenever they do tours. But it's weird, you go to cities and you talk to the reporter from the daily newspaper there and they ask the questions all the daily reporters ask, then you talk to the alternative newspaper person and they ask all the questions all the alternative people ask. Then you're in the hotel room and you're waiting around and the hotels are all vaguely similar. You walk to the nearest restaurant, and they're exactly like all the restaurants that happen to be near hotels. Then you go to the reading and people ask the same questions. Then you go to the bar afterward and it's the same kind of people who want to hang out with you. It's kind of amazing how similar life becomes.
VD: Do you feel that doing these tours and doing these interviews has helped you with your interviewing skills when you're done touring and go back to the office?
CK: Oh, absolutely. There's something that I realized through being interviewed that now I will implement in my own interviewing. It makes me sound like a jerk, but it's true: The person interviewing you a lot of times tries to relate to you by telling you an anecdote from their life that they felt was spurred on by the book. When people interviewed me about Fargo Rock City, they would often be like, "Well, here are my heavy metal memories," and tell me about going to a Whitesnake show in '86. The thing is, when that happens, I don't even know what I'm supposed to do really. I realize that they're just trying to show that they relate to me or whatever, but it's not really a question. I could say like, "That's awesome." One thing now, whenever I interview people I'm very cognizant to never ever tell them things about my life because I realize they never care.
VD: One thing that makes it hard for people is that you're a very personal writer. You really put yourself out there. I think it's kind of difficult to not impose yourself into the experience.
CK: I interviewed Richard Linklater once, and one of the things he told me—when he said this I knew what he meant—he said people don't come up to me and tell me that, "God, your film blew my mind," they come up to me and say, "I could have made that film. If I was a filmmaker I could do that." That's not really true, but I understand what he means. A lot of people watch Dazed and Confused and think to themselves, "If I made a movie, that's what it would look like." A lot of people will say, "I feel like if I wrote a book it would be exactly like yours." People don't view me as an inaccessible writer. I'll get into an elevator somewhere and someone will just call me Chuck. It's like they know me. That's cool, I'm happy about that, but if I got into an elevator with Douglas Copeland, whom I've never met before, I'd at least say his full name, you know.
I guess that's good. If people feel comfortable with me, that's probably why they like reading my books. They see me as somebody who is similar to them who just happens to be the person who gets to write about it.
VD: Do you think this is a Gen X thing?
CK: And what would the result of that be?
VD: This sense of, "Well, I could do that too." We have so much reality television. There's no distinction anymore. There's no fourth wall anymore.
CK: This has really happened over the last 10 years. Suddenly a lot of things that were previously impossible are still difficult but they are possible. Memoir writing became pretty much the biggest extension of nonfiction writing. But what is a memoir? A memoir is an autobiography about somebody who's not famous. I think a lot of people are like, "Well, I can write my autobiography. I have interesting anecdotes. I fucking listen to records and they engage my view of romance." They think it could happen. Sometimes some blogger gets a book deal, right, so bloggers think, "Well, maybe I could get a book deal." Kevin Smith makes Clerks for $10,000. People go, "Well, jeez, I don't really know how to do this, but I bet I could find $10,000."
If it was 1974 and you wanted to be on television, you would be like, "How is this ever going to happen?" There's no way I could ever possibly be on television. I'd have to move to Los Angeles. I'd have to take acting lessons. I'd have to get a break. I'd have to sleep with a bunch of people I didn't like. But how it is now, getting on television now is probably easier than being a lawyer. It's true. I think if you're a 19-year-old kid and you're trying to figure out what you're trying to do with your life. Maybe I'd like to be a federal prosecutor, or maybe I'd like to be on television. I definitely think that getting on television would be easier.
VD: And now people are famous just for being reality stars.
CK: Although that's a weird kind of fame. The thing is, there's so many of them now that even people who watch reality television have a hard time remembering who was who. When I watch The Real World/Road Rules Challenge, a lot of times they'll bring somebody on the show and I'm like "Wow." It's amazing. If I don't know this person, how can anybody? I'm supposed to know who these people are, right? And they have that weird life where it's just a sliver of what being a celebrity used to mean. It used to be being a celebrity meant people recognized you, you were wealthy, and you had this kind of dream life. People respected you even though all you'd really done is moved yourself into a different tier of society. Now, you're only famous. No one respects you. You have no money. Those people are broke. The only people they're having sex with are other reality stars.
VD: Do you think we've reached a saturation point where there's going to be a change in some direction other than just another Survivor or another Real World?
CK: Those saturation points are harder to reach now. There was a time when there were three channels on television, and the only radio was the FM station in your town. Not many movies came out, and a limited number of records came out. Now they keep expanding and expanding and expanding it. If people don't like reality television, it's not like they have to watch it. I get something like 270 channels or something. I could easily go a year without watching reality television, even though it's sort of the most universal form of programming. If you're talking about saturation from a scientific sense, they just keep getting a bigger and bigger swimming pool. You can't really saturate it. It will eventually be a lake and then an ocean.
VD: They're getting ready for Real World Denver.
CK: Yeah, I know. Could Minneapolis be far behind?
VD: What would you suggest we do to help make the Denver one the best one ever?
CK: That's interesting. That program took a really huge aesthetic change around the year it was set in Las Vegas. It's so weird, but it's been going on now for more than a decade. In the early Real Worlds, there was very little drinking. That was very rare. And the hope was always that, "I wonder if any of these cast members will hook up with each other or with anyone?" It was not until the Hawaii year that two cast members ever really got together. But now that's the normative condition. It usually happens right away. The show sort of shifted. Now they're almost feeding those kids booze and demanding them to go to the worst bars in town.
I thought the Austin cast was funny. Austin is an awesome town, a really cool place. Probably one of my favorite cities in the country. And the Real World kids managed to find the one bar in Austin that's terrible. It doesn't seem anything like the rest of the town. All of the hipsters in that town must have despised that show. So whatever is the worst bar in Denver, that's where the Real World kids will be going.
But to be the best year ever? It would be interesting if this was the first cast that got heavily involved in narcotics dealing. I think that would be interesting. If it became Miami Vice, sort of, where Glenn Frey is doing coke in the Real World house, I think that would be cool. But MTV seems wary of that. Anything but that. Somebody can have sex with 15 people in one night, and they love it. But nobody can smoke pot on The Real World.
VD: What is Chuck Klosterman IV going to be about?
CK: Some of the people who read my books are really young; they're like high school kids or they're in college. They had no idea who I was before these books came out. When they found out that I worked in newspapers for eight years and I worked at magazines, they wondered if there was a way they could read some of the stories. That's interesting. I think anybody who is a journalist or a writer likes the idea of an anthology. So I gingerly brought this up to Scribner, thinking let's put this out solely in softcover so it's really cheap and it will be like a collection of things I've written. They liked the idea and wanted it to be a real book. Now it's coming out in hardcover. It's basically three parts. The first part is trends and profile pieces I've done over the years, kind of the real journalism. The second is columns I've done, first-person things—things that aren't really journalism, just kind of first-person writing. The third part is a novella I wrote in the year 2000. So it's fiction. It's things that are true, things that might be true, and something that's not remotely true.
VD: Do you have any thoughts about a book beyond that?
CK: I'm writing a novel now. I'm trying to write a novel. That would be the fifth book. In an ideal world I would write this novel then write another nonfiction book after that. I think that I'll always be primarily a nonfiction writer, but I just wanted to see if I could write a novel. I'm still figuring out if I can. It's different. I've never done it before, so I'm just trying.
VD: Would you say that was your original goal, to become a fiction writer?
CK: No, no, no. When I got out of college in 1994, my goal was that if I worked hard and I caught some breaks and I became a better writer, someday, maybe, I might be able to work at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. That was the totality of my goal, to work at a major metro newspaper, and it seemed like the best chance, coming from North Dakota, would be Minneapolis. Of course I thought maybe it would be nice to write a book someday, but I didn't even own a computer. I didn't even have an idea how a book got published. It's really weird. What do you do when your real life completely usurps your dreams? That's exactly what's happened. I can't believe that I have a fourth book coming out. I never thought I would have one.
Then it's also weird how life gets normal. Now it just seems like this is what I do. It's really weird. I'm still getting used to it. Five years ago, before Fargo Rock City came out, nobody cared about me. No one fucking cared about what I wrote or thought about anything. I was completely unknown. It kind of blows my mind I'm doing this interview right now. I'm still getting used to this. Things just change—maybe too fast.
VD: You wrote at length about Saved by the Bell in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. What are your thoughts on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim and their growing role as a Gen X pop-culture depository, in particular their experimentation with Saved by the Bell, having a live-action show on at night?
CK: Adult Swim is showing Saved by the Bell now?
VD: They ran two week's worth of episodes in April.
CK: The Adult Swim stuff, I think it's really cool. It's great, but it's stoner TV. The fact that Saved by the Bell was on there is not the least bit surprising. It's not for kids. The humor is too weird and too sophisticated for children. If there are little kids who are actually watching Adult Swim and appreciating it, the next generation of adults is going to be amazing. They're all going to be like Charlie Kaufman.
VD: In Killing Yourself to Live you talk about the transfer from cassettes to CDs. How about from CDs to MP3s?
CK: I think it's probably going to move the music industry back to the model they were using in the '50s, where it's singles based. The downside to that is that there are certain kinds of music that are more geared toward the singles medium, like pop and Neptune-produced hip-hop. It's going to be bad for bands who want to be like Radiohead or Wilco.
It's going to change rock criticism more than it's going to change music. The first time I heard about Pavement I read about it in Spin. I didn't have the record. There wasn't even a place where I could get it at the time. I had to read the review. The guy had to explain what it sounded like and what kind of people would like it and what it means. I had to make a decision on my interest based on what I read. Now if I read that, it would be sitting next to an MP3 on a computer screen, so I could hear the music immediately. The idea of a critic telling people what's cool or isn't cool, or good or bad, that era is going to end. But on the upside, it's interesting when culture becomes free. It's interesting when everything is immediate and anybody can have it; that will change its meaning. I'm kind of interested to see. I don't know. I have a lot of CDs. I wonder if they are all going to be artifacts in 10 years, just things I have to move.
VD: In the closing paragraphs of Killing Yourself to Live you address the potential for the book to be considered a nonfiction High Fidelity, then you pose the possibility that by discussing this you could potentially defuse this comparison. Would you say that's almost the literary equivalent of modern-day hip-hop and club culture where DJs and producers use other people's material but it's alright so long as they give reference to the source?
CK: That's a really interesting theory. I've never thought of it like that. The way I've thought of it, I don't feel like I write that much like Nick Hornby, and I definitely feel like our musical interests are vastly different. However, I realize that any time there's a white guy talking about how pop music helps him understand ex-girlfriends, people are going to say it's like High Fidelity because High Fidelity was a very good book and it was kind of the definition of that idea. I review things for a living, so I know if I was reviewing that book, that's what I would think.
Some people don't like self-aware writing. Obviously one of the things that I am most criticized for—particularly in Killing Yourself to Live—is the degree of self-awareness in the text. Some people don't like that. But to me, self-aware writing is smart writing. I never forget I'm reading a book. I'm never reading a book and transported into Narnia and forgot where I was. I always know it's words on a page. So I'm not going to try to pretend that the person who reads my book isn't going to be as smart as I am or is basically going to give themselves up to whatever concept I might be proposing.
VD: Do you feel that Chuck Klosterman IV is going to be drastically different from your other books?
CK: Chuck Klosterman IV and the novel are going to be different. Look at it this way: Man, I'm 33 and I've written three memoirs. That's one memoir for each 11 years I'm alive. I've got to live more. There's nothing else to write about. There really isn't. Plus, I have this Esquire column, and I do first-person stuff for the New York Times Magazine sometimes. There's not much about my life that's undiscovered. The things that people don't know about me now, they're never gonna know. I've probably played those chips. Those chips are gone. Something else has to happen to me. I need to go blind or something. (less)
Turgenev's "The Diary of a Superfluous Man" is a clssic of emotional and psychological distress, and despite being a century and a half old, feels lik...moreTurgenev's "The Diary of a Superfluous Man" is a clssic of emotional and psychological distress, and despite being a century and a half old, feels like it was written last week. Timeless, beautiful and tragic. And being Turgenev, it has an awesome duel!(less)
This review originally appeared in the BOULDER WEEKLY
A good story Dan Simmons weaves words into worlds
by Vince Darcangelo - - - - - - - - - - - -
Technology has enabled artists to express themselves and materialize their artistic visions in ways that would have seemed like fanciful science fiction just a few years ago. Take big-budget motion pictures, for instance. But strip away the hi-resolution, computer-enhanced dressing, and the core of great art remains the same as it’s been since the earliest cave drawings: You’ve got to tell a good story.
Cosmic computer animation is great, but is rendered meaningless without a foundation of creativity, discipline and idea development. And for that you don’t need advanced technology–you need a great storyteller. Boulder County is home to one of America’s greatest storytellers, author Dan Simmons.
Simmons is well known for his work in the genres of mystery, science fiction and horror, but a common thread in all of Simmons’ writing is the deep imagination of the unassuming author. And with more than 20 years of published fiction and non-fiction under his belt, Simmons’ voice is still as fresh as the most ambitious up-and-comer. This is partly attributable to his three-headed career as a novelist.
"I enjoy the switching of gears. Every genre that I like writing in demands a certain type of attention, and it’s a relief sometimes to enter into another project for nine months to a year where you’re using a whole different set of skills," says Simmons. "I sometimes compare it to when I was growing up in the Midwest. We had to rotate the crops or the soil would become pretty useless."
In science fiction circles, Simmons is best known for his Hyperion series of novels. In the area of mystery, he's known for his Joe Kurtz books, Hardcase, Hard Freeze and Hard as Nails, the last of which was released earlier this month. In horror, he's recognized for Song of Kali, Carrion Comfort, Song of Night and 2002’s A Winter Haunting. Writing in these voices allows Simmons to explore all his writing interests.
"It depends on what itch needs to be scratched," he says. "When I most want to engage with language, surprisingly enough science fiction is the most attractive genre to me because I’ve suggested to some people that it’s rather close to poetry… The sheer amount of linguistic invention is delightful to me. At other times I get sick of that and I just want to write very lean and mean, and at both times the mystery stuff comes in very handy.
"I still enjoy horror fiction a lot, but not so much for the linguistic dance," he continues. "That’s more for getting in touch with some very basic emotions… You’re not so much trying to raise goosebumps on everybody all the time as to just light a lantern and take people into the basement where they don’t want to go all too often."
To date, Simmons has taken millions of eager readers into that basement, and they keep coming back for a return trip. Simmons’ most recent horror offering, A Winter Haunting, is tied in with his 1991 classic, Summer of Night. Haunting is a psychedelic page-turner that adds a unique, user-friendly twist to the classic haunted-house tale. It’s as much about the horror of isolation and personal failure as it is about a haunted Midwestern farmhouse. Both books make for a great holiday read this Halloween.
Fans of the books will be glad to know Simmons is taking another trip to that haunted farmhouse on the big screen.
"Next summer I am re-engaging with Summer of Night / A Winter Haunting. Two producers have asked me to do a screenplay incorporating elements of both books, so they’ve optioned both books," says Simmons. "It’ll be A Winter Haunting per se, with more flashbacks to the kids 40 years earlier that were in Summer of Night. I’m really looking forward to that because it will in no way be a literal translation of my novel. I want it to be much more frightening; I want it to be exquisitely cinematic. I’m working with a director friend just to use modern technology–not super-special digital effects–just to use the technology because one of the points of view in A Winter Haunting is a kid who’s been dead for 40 years who’s still in this house, but he’s not a ghost. He’s a cyst of memory in the character’s mind."
Many writers are nervous about seeing their creations up on the big screen. It’s difficult to fit 300-plus pages of character development, dialogue and conflict resolution into a 90-minute feature film. And in Simmons’ case, it will be the condensing of two books. But unlike most authors, Simmons is excited by the possibilities.
"I think the movie can be superior to the novel," he says. "I’m the only novelist who thinks that."
A Winter Haunting is not the only movie project on the horizon for Simmons. The Hyperion series is slated for a big studio release, and there is the possibility of an ambitious, big-name production of his first published book.
"My first and in some ways scariest book was Song of Kali, set in Calcutta. Regency Films has optioned that, and the director they’ve chosen, who’s on board and working on it, is Darren Aronofsky, who did ¼ and Requiem for a Dream," says Simmons. "Quite honestly, I can’t think of any other director who might go at this material in Song of Kali better than Aronofsky because it would take tremendous guts and it has certain other things that nobody in Hollywood wants to put in a movie. And just the act of shooting in Calcutta, which he insists he wants to do, is very daunting."
But despite his Hollywood forays, Simmons still maintains a low profile, often receiving more notice on his book tours away from home than along the Front Range.
"Obviously, when you’re producing, on average, two books a year, you’re not out having too much social life. But over here in Longmont, I have a great advantage," says Simmons. "I was a teacher in the district for 14 years. I taught and ran gifted programs for 18 years before I started writing full time. So when people know me here at all, they just know me as old Mr. Simmons, the former teacher. So I’m pretty anonymous.
"I’ve been in the phone book forever. It’s rather nice," he continues. "I’m better known most places that I travel than I am here in Boulder County."
Simmons recently completed a book tour supporting his 2003 science fiction release Ilium. Ilium is the first of a two-part epic that will close with Olympos, the book Simmons is working on now. Olympos is set for release in the spring of 2005. Until then, readers can enjoy the prolific writer’s back catalogue and keep an eye trained to the local movie listings.
But whether he’s writing interplanetary epics, hard-boiled noir, disturbing horror or big-budget screenplays, Simmons’ greatest gift is that timeless creative component that is often forgotten in the boisterous business of the entertainment industry.
That is his gift to tell a great story.
Hard as Nails is currently available from St. Martin’s Press. Ilium is currently available from Harper Collins EOS.(less)