Interviewing Chuck Klosterman is an intensely meta experience. For one thing, he's an interviewer of some renown himself: His profiles on everyone from Britney Spears to Billy Joel to Steve Nash have appeared in Spin and Esquire and, most recently, on the sports and culture website Grantland. Also, in his 2009 essay collection, Eating the Dinosaur, he wrote about the interview process, contemplating the human compulsion to answer questions. Now, he's framed an entire book around the interaction between interviewer and subject—except the former isn't a journalist but a therapist, and the latter is not an athlete or pop star but a voyeuristic loner who develops sophisticated cloaking technology allowing him to observe people as his own gorillas in the mist.
Although The Visible Man—Klosterman's second novel and seventh book overall—is fiction, thematically it is an extension of the ideas that run through his work as America's sharpest (and funniest) pop-culture pundit: the way media transforms reality; the meaning of culture; the dissonance of self-perception. And, of course, it is also full of references to Philip K. Dick, Rush, the Texas Longhorns, and Duran Duran album art.
WW spoke to Klosterman about his new book and his past work, as well as Snooki's pistachio platform, the image of David Lee Roth shaving, the concept of "weirdness sense" and, naturally, Insane Clown Posse.
WW: The Visible Man seems like a novel a journalist would write. In what ways did your journalism career influence the book?
Chuck Klosterman: A lot of the ideas in this book were also in Eating the Dinosaur to a certain extent, but in order to really approach them, I needed to have fictional characters having unreal experiences. That's always the main thing that pushes me toward ever writing fiction: that I just can't get people in real life to say the things I want them to say, so I have to make up people to do it.
In the book, the psychopath character asserts that observing someone while they're alone is a view into true, unfettered humanity, as opposed to the "fake person" people become when in social settings. Who do you think is more important: the person we are when we're completely alone, or the person we are in front of other people?
That depends on your definition of the word "important." If you ask someone, "Would you rather be happy around other people or would you rather be happy by yourself?," when they would hear the question, they would feel as though they should answer, "By yourself," because somehow that would be the ultimate kind of happiness, to be alone in a room and feel good. In practice, people care much more about their happiness in group settings or in public. People who are depressed very often want to be perceived as happy in public. So I think the way the world operates now is that someone's public perception and someone's public happiness is more important, because of what we collectively concluded makes up a good life. But I don't know if somebody can be truly happy if they're not happy by themselves. I think that is the more essential state of being.
Of the people you have interviewed, whom do you feel you could glean the most from by observing them while they're alone?
I would say Bono. Bono seems to me the most aware of how he's being perceived at all times. I'm not even criticizing him for this, although I guess I'm not really complimenting him, either. I'm just saying he seems the most aware of who he is. The idea of Bono is always central to him, so it'd be interesting to see what he's like by himself. The problem with watching someone when they're alone, of course—and this is an issue in the book—is that they don't talk. The only way we know what people are like is through talking. Errol Morris mentioned this. He said, "I don't trust people who are quiet, because how am I supposed to know what they're thinking?"
Who do you think would be the most purely entertaining?
No matter how famous a person gets, they still have to do certain things by themselves. It's really weird to, say, imagine Prince or David Lee Roth or Eddie Vedder shaving. Obviously, they don't have somebody shave them. They shave themselves. No matter how famous or rich you are, there are certain things you do by yourself. Seeing a super-famous person in that setting would be interesting, even though, as I describe it out loud, I have no idea why.
You did an interview in 2009 in which you disagreed with the notion of the essays in Eating the Dinosaur being defeatist and a bit depressing, but I feel that since Killing Yourself to Live—which is framed around you driving across the country visiting famous rock-'n'-roll death sites—your work has progressively gotten a few shades darker.
On the one hand, that's not totally wrong. I suppose the books have gotten darker over time. I suppose the first really big change is [previous novel] Downtown Owl. It's probably a darker book than people thought I would write, and this book is probably the same way. On the other hand, I think the main reason people come to that perception, which, as I say, isn't inaccurate, but I don't think it would be so noticeable if it wasn't for the fact that in those first two books, there was basically a joke a paragraph. When I wrote [first essay collection] Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, it's hard to find a paragraph in that book without a joke. If there's a paragraph without a joke, it's setting up a specific joke in the next one. That book, to me, it's about culture and it's not stupid, but it's mostly supposed to be entertaining for people. I want it to be intellectual entertainment for a person. So because of that, because my books are less funny, the tone is different. That's the main thing. Some people feel the last essay in Eating the Dinosaur, about Ted Kaczynski, is a dark, depressing essay, but I wonder what would've happened if I wrote the exact same essay and added a joke a paragraph, without subtracting anything. I wonder what people would've thought.
Are there any essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs you regret now?
Regret is too strong a word, because that book completely changed my life. I would never want to go back and change anything on the fear my life would be different if I did. That said, if I knew that book was going to be popular the way it was, I probably would've written it differently. It's good I didn't, I suppose. But some of the things in that book I was wrong about. I declared soccer will never be popular in America, and it's clearly become popular. Now, granted, when I wrote that, I thought it was a funny sentiment. I thought it was kind of true, but mostly funny. But it's not perceived as that, it is perceived as mostly my insight onto the world.
The biggest thing that now is not really applicable is when I was writing about the newspaper industry. When I wrote that in 2000 or 2001, I was talking about something that doesn't even exist anymore, in a way. The problems in newspapers I perceived in that time are not the problems newspapers have now. It's crazy how fast the world changed in some ways. In 2000, when Bush was running against Gore, the principal complaint intellectual people seemed to have was that those guys were exactly the same. There was even a Rage Against the Machine video based on the premise that there's no difference between Republicans and Democrats, that they're just puppets to the same kind of complex. Now it's not like that at all. The country is more polarized now probably than in any time I've been alive. People did not take Fox News and the early stages of MSNBC seriously like they do now. There wasn't this idea that a network could be a journalistic enterprise, a political enterprise and an entertainment enterprise at the same time. As it turns out, people just like that way more. People do not like unbiased coverage. They want things that reflect and mirror their own personal biases. That's just because it's the dominant way people get news now.
I was watching YouTube clips of some Q&As you've done at book readings, and it seems like what usually happens is someone just asks for your opinion about some random pop-culture phenomenon, like Snooki doing commercials for pistachios. Do you feel pressure to engage with culture you're not even interested in just because you're expected to have a viewpoint on everything?
I did for a little bit, but I don't now. There was a point earlier in my life when I was worried to get a question like that and say, "I have no idea," but now it doesn't worry me anymore. You go to a book reading, you read from the book or talk about the book and you take questions, and I'm really interested in what they're asking about. To be honest, I don't think they want me to answer their question, really. The person who asked me what I think about Snooki promoting pistachios or whatever, it's not like that person is dealing with this problem internally, and they're like, "Maybe this guy can clear up how I can feel about Snooki's pistachio platform." They're like, "Well, I think this is funny, maybe if I bring this up and he'll think it's funny, or maybe he's thought about this already and he'll just say what he thinks." Or maybe it's just a reason to ask a question.
Well, in the spirit of those Q&As, I feel compelled to ask your opinion about the recent Jack White-Insane Clown Posse collaboration.
It was bizarre to see people who were outraged by this. It made it very clear to me that most people—and, weirdly, most music critics—can't see something that is very obvious, which is that Insane Clown Posse is fucking hilarious. Anybody who thinks they're not is unfunny. You can't look at the Insane Clown Posse and go, "They suck because they don't rap as well as Nas." That's not how it is. What they're doing is really funny. Their whole made-up lexicon is funny, the premise they're starting—that what could be more frightening to society than an insane clown?—I think is just genius. What I suspect is that Jack White, who is sort of a paranoid person but not an unfunny person, immediately saw there was something interesting and weird about this and is very aware that there is a sort of humorless person who will be shocked by this. And he was like, "Why not do this?" The more cynical part of me does think, though, that Jack White does not have a high opinion of hip-hop music, and maybe he thought, "Well, OK, I'll get involved with the most musically untalented group I could find," almost to make a point about it. But I doubt that. I think it's more, these are guys who are both from Detroit who have some person in common and thought, âThis will be funny and weird.â
It only makes sense to the degree that it's so weird that it's almost predictably weird. It doesn't really make logical sense, but it makes craziness sense. Say if Lemmy did a record with Justin Bieber: In a weird way, that would make weirdness sense, even though it's illogical. It would be so extreme you could understand the person who thought, "This would be funny."
SEE IT: Chuck Klosterman appears at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, Oct. 10. Free.