I have this really happy memory of sitting alone in my favorite Thai restaurant circa 2007, reading Chuck Klosterman’s memoir Killing Yourself to Live (85% of a True Story) and wishing I’d written it myself.
I bring this up now because I just finished his most recent novel, The Visible Man. I went back and forth on whether or not to write up a full book review of it, because … well, to be honest, I didn’t really like it.
And please understand, it kind of breaks my heart to say that. I love Klosterman’s writing, I really do. He’s a terrific memoirist and essayist, but a pretty dull novelist (and ethicist – his current gig is writing the ethics column for the New York Times magazine, which is possibly the most boring and navel-gazing job I can imagine (besides writing a blog).)
The Visible Man has an interesting premise, but it’s gimmicky and slow-moving, and the major plot device is similar enough to my recent favorite The Passage that I can’t help but compare the two which does Klosterman’s novel exactly zero favors.
And for some insane reason, he wrote the novel to be an author’s unfinished manuscript, which means the book reads … exactly like an unfinished manuscript.
So I decided not to waste my time writing or your time reading a review of a book that I don’t really like.
But I found a thread of continuity in The Visible Man and Killing Yourself to Live (85% of a True Story) as well as Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his first book of collected essays which I also loved. And that’s what I wanted to write about.
This is a little long winded. Here goes.
Although this post started in 2007, the story actually begins in 2002, when I saw the movie Vanilla Sky with my parents. One of my mom’s coworkers had recommended it, and made it sound interesting. I thought it was confusing, and what I remember most about my first viewing of the movie is how crooked Tom Cruise’s teeth were.
Several years later, I read Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, particularly the essay called “The Awe-Inspiring Beauty of Tom Cruise’s Shattered, Troll-Like Face.”
I immediately loved the essay. He acknowledges the fact that Vanilla Sky is a difficult movie on first watching, but makes an argument for the underlying message of the movie (more on that in a moment.) He also talks about reading movie reviews after watching a movie – something I love to do even though I couldn’t really understand why it was so interesting for me to read about a movie I’ve already seen. It was only upon reading this essay that I could make sense of this habit – reading film criticism validates my opinions about movies (read enough movie reviews and you’re bound to find someone who thinks the same thing you do about any given movie) and provides me with the language to talk about movies in an informed way.
At the time, I was taking a research writing course at the community college, and our final paper was a research essay based on “a topic that interests you.” Most of my classmates wrote about things like the legalization of marijuana or the increasing cost of college tuition and its impact on education in America; I wrote about dreams in movies, using Kosterman’s essay as my primary source.
And before you tell me that Chuck Klosterman’s collection of pop culture essays is not a scholarly journal – I know. Believe it or not, that was not a requirement for that particular class. (You might be questioning the validity of my community college education, between this and the literature class I took on comic books. Wrong! Actually, I found a copy of this particular paper in my desk recently and I still think it’s one of my better pieces of writing.)
All of this leads directly to that pivotal moment in 2007 when I decided over a plate of Pad Thai that I wanted to be a pop culture writer in the vein of Chuck Klosterman.
In “The Awe-Inspiring Beauty of Tom Cruise’s Shattered, Troll-Like Face,” he directly asks the question: “what is reality?” It comes up in Vanilla Sky because Tom Cruises’s troll-faced character can’t decipher his dreams from reality.
But the idea of reality is an ongoing issue throughout his writing because when you are as obsessed with pop culture as Klosterman is – as I am, as most of us who have ever read celebrity gossip or thought “this song is the soundtrack of my life” are – it gets more difficult to decipher the stuff of pop culture from reality.
He doesn’t say it in as many words, but read enough of his work (I think I have read enough to say this with some authority) and you’ll pick up on his argument that at some point, we stop experiencing music and TV shows and movies and celebrity gossip as entertainment in our lives and start using pop culture to experience our lives.
Klosterman says it best in his essay on MTV’s The Real World: “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite.”
Technically, these people were completely different every year, but they were also exactly the same. And pretty soon it became clear that the producers of The Real World weren’t sampling the youth of America – they were unintentionally creating it.
Said a different way, later in the same essay:
In 1992, The Real World was supposed to be that kind of calculated accident; it was theoretically created as a seamless extension of reality. But somewhere that relationship became reversed; theory was replaced by practice.
It’s been ten years since that book was published. And this phenomenon doesn’t seem to be slowing down (actually, I think we’re – well, my generation anyway – becoming more pop culture obsessed now that we can interact with our favorite famous people via Twitter and Tumblr.)
Judging by The Visible Man, Klosterman’s still thinking about reality and when we humans are ever our real selves.
The main character of the novel develops technology to, well, basically to spy on people — but not the way the NSA is spying on our online lives. Klosterman basically says here that who we are in the internet is NOT our real selves. Only when someone is alone and lets his or her guard down are they really real.
And in the novel, even when completely alone, people use pop culture to make sense of themselves. Pop culture validates their opinions (watch enough TV and you’re bound to find someone who thinks the same thing you do) and provides the language they need to talk about their experiences in an informed way (usually a verse of a particularly moving song.)
I’d send a letter asking his opinions on how pop culture is or isn’t influencing our reality to Chuck at The Ethicist if I could stand reading his columns. But I usually can’t.
And anyway, now I have a blog where I am writing those pop culture essays I wanted to write, so I am going to ask Klosterman’s question about reality a different way: are our experiences any less real when we use words from someone else’s song or essay to describe them?