SEPTEMBER 1, 2019
FANS OF CHUCK KLOSTERMAN’S earlier work — in particular his fervid, almost Talmudic close readings of such late-20th-century pop cultural artifacts as Saved by the Bell and The Real World — may not be satisfied by his new book, and he doesn’t care. He tells me this, even though, as he admits, he probably shouldn’t, when he speaks to me over Skype from his home in Portland, Oregon. It’s one month before the July 16 release of Raised in Captivity, a collection of short stories that are definitely not nonfiction.
“I know I’m not supposed to say [that],” he says, “And maybe it’s disingenuous in a way, because I would be disappointed if everybody hated it, I guess — but I don’t care as much as I usually do.”
Of Klosterman’s previous 10 books, eight have been nonfiction, and they’ve often taken as their subject sports, music, television, and other popular entertainments of the recent past. These are moving targets as far as cultural analysis is concerned and are notoriously difficult to render convincingly in fiction. Nevertheless, in this collection of 34 stories, he regularly dips into his old obsessions, spinning them into bizarre, absurdist scenarios, a long string of what-would-you-do thought experiments. In one story, a high school football coach devises a play so meticulously constructed that it never fails to advance the ball, increment by boring increment, toward the end zone. In another, an indie band finds that, for no particular reason, one of their tracks, a standard three-minute breakup song, has become the official song of summer for white supremacists around the world.
These aren’t stories you’d go to for rich, multilayered character arcs; they’re short, averaging about 10 pages apiece, and most of the protagonists have all the personality of my grandmother’s third Chrysler. On the rare occasion a character does step out from the mostly nameless crew of Gen-X everyman types, he’s usually a wordy, obsessive nerd, who seems familiar somehow. Take for example the unnamed narrator of the story “Experience Music Project,” who describes another character’s musical tastes in this way: “[H]e dexterously sees through the institutionalized facade that dictates musicians must play their own instruments and write their own material in order to galvanize relevancy.” Klosterman supplies no physical description of the narrator of this little bit of knowing self-parody, but I think it’s reasonable to imagine him with the same ginger beard, toothy grin, and thick-framed glasses as the guy smiling from the back of the book jacket.
These criticisms are largely beside the point, because Klosterman isn’t going for character-driven drama. Rather, these are modern parables that read like looser, goofier, less self-serious episodes of Black Mirror. (Of course, that’s also an accurate description of the drippy, pointless fifth season of Black Mirror, but I give Klosterman the point here because his breezy, easy-drinking prose isn’t laboring under the mantle of prestige television pretentions that seems to have finally exhausted the writers of Black Mirror.)
Still, while these stories are all competent, observant, and often funny, they are a departure from the meandering, discursive, overly intellectual yet self-aware nonfiction that has always been Klosterman’s best-selling mode. His 2003 essay collection, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, has sold over half-a-million copies according to the publisher, and it earned him a dedicated following in a decade when writers like Dave Eggers, Susan Orlean, and David Foster Wallace were popularizing a similarly idiosyncratic form of literary nonfiction. Which maybe explains why Penguin Press has decided to describe Raised in Captivity as “fictional nonfiction.” Did they think Klosterman’s fans might glide over that phrase and only perceive the word that most appealed to their tastes? What are we supposed to make of “fictional nonfiction”?
“That’s kind of a joke to myself,” Klosterman says. “What is ‘fictional nonfiction’? It’s fiction.”
Okay. But why did Klosterman switch to fiction this time around? And not only that — why write short stories, a form he’s never been associated with? (His previous works of fiction are novels.) It’s a line of questioning I predict he will find annoying on many levels. It has to be asked nevertheless, if only because it will be the first question his more familiar readers will have when they find his new book shelved somewhere between Kafka and Koontz. He surprises me, though, by showing no obvious annoyance and being ready with a pretty comprehensive answer.
“There were things I wanted to write about,” he says. “But to do it in essay form, there would just be certain limitations, and there are no limitations when it’s fiction. With essay writing, particularly the way the world is now, it’s become very difficult to bring up problematic ideas without having that idea immediately attached to the writer. And that hijacks the ability to discuss the idea in any straightforward context because the reader sees this idea that contradicts their worldview, and their unconscious reaction is to argue with the writer in their mind.”
I have no data or links to back up this assertion. But, to use a phrase that might be meaningful to the reading community Klosterman describes, it feels true. Klosterman’s writing has always been about drawing connections between disparate objects, cultural phenomena, and people. This is a man who once compared apples to oranges, literally, and made a compelling case that they are pretty much the same thing. “The goal of being alive is to figure out what it means to be alive,” he wrote in the introduction to Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, “and there is a myriad of ways to deduce that answer; I just happen to prefer examining the question through the context of Pamela Anderson and The Real World and Frosted Flakes.” But if Klosterman, as an essayist, sought a kind of meaningful connection with a bewildering world by studying its most ubiquitous and banal cultural products, these new stories suggest the work of a cultural critic who has become at least somewhat disenchanted with his subject.
The characters in Raised in Captivity are, more often than not, socially isolated, disaffected men (mostly) of a certain age. Faced with the absurd challenges the author foists on them — a man flies first class for the first time and finds a large predator inside the airplane lavatory, another has to confront an orange-jumpsuit-clad stranger in a children’s playground — these reluctant protagonists often hesitate or collapse under the clammy weight of their own confusion and indecision. It’s an anomie brought on, I gather, by waking up in a world that has seemingly changed overnight, a world in which the old shared assumptions, flawed and threadbare as they were, have been replaced with a capricious and worryingly subjective set of social constructions. In one story, a secret government agency has discovered that the act of flipping a coin has lost its impartiality. Of course the public can never be allowed to know that coins no longer have a 50-50 chance of landing heads or tails — that would only allow the madness to spread.
Other stories are more openly critical of the social norms that have taken hold among the social-justice-oriented left. In “Toxic Actuality,” two college professors walk through a university quad, “the only part of campus still resembling the institution that had hired them years before,” and discuss their students’ newfound and powerful censoriousness. It’s a pointed bit of allegory reminiscent of Zadie Smith’s “Now More Than Ever,” published last year in The New Yorker.
“The Enemy Within” has a woman kidnapped and interrogated by a group of extremely polite, Prius-driving progressive thought police. They offer her a LaCroix and say they only want to ask a few questions. The subject of the interrogation? They have come to believe that her boyfriend’s inner values don’t match up with his putatively liberal public persona. Sure, he watches Atlanta and Broad City. But does he watch them for the right reasons? And he’s stopped watching football on principle, but was it based on correct thinking about concussions and toxic masculinity, or was it because of … the kneeling? “We have reason to believe,” the lead captor says, “your boyfriend is Fake Woke.”
The phrase “Fake Woke” may be a bit on the nose for some readers, as it was for me, but as with Zadie Smith’s satire of social media cancel culture, Klosterman’s story is something more than an anti-PC screed. Rather, this is a story about how ever-finer gradations of disagreement now threaten to endanger personal relationships and affections that were once the most durable bonds in our society: friends, family, lovers are all at risk of being alienated over differences in political perspective so minute they wouldn’t have even registered five years ago.
Klosterman is fundamentally a conservative person, he tells me, though he doesn’t mean “conservative” in the political sense. If you add up all of his stances on specific policy issues, he says, “it would paint the portrait of somebody who seems kind of liberal.” Be that as it may, there is a conservative philosophical core to this story collection in that it positions radical social change, ambiguity, and disruption as the main antagonists. And while I acknowledge that it is gauche to reflexively project an author onto his or her fictional creations, in this case Klosterman does little to discourage the comparison. “I am always trying to stop things from being different in my life,” he tells me. It’s a statement that could have come from almost any of his protagonists.
I’m sure I won’t be alone in wishing the author had chosen to forward some of his more pointed social criticisms under his own byline, minus the “fictional nonfiction” conceit. Most of the stories in this collection, however, aren’t so much advancing an argument about how society should be, as they are simply a record of one singular personality trying to find some solid ground in an increasingly bewildering and fast changing cultural landscape.
I wonder aloud if there is something in the nature of the cultural critic, the social analyst, and those who can’t help but seek patterns in the minutiae of daily shared experience, that resists change. Perhaps, in order to accurately describe the world, we have to pin it down to keep it from squirming so much. It’s an elegant enough formulation, I think.
“That’s interesting,” Klosterman says, and thinks for a moment before dismissing my formulation. “I just constantly feel like reality is spiraling out of control, and I almost have it, but I’m losing control.”
Okay, I think, I don’t see how that’s so different from what I said. Regardless, Klosterman seems like a nice guy, and he’s been generous in taking the time to talk to me about his book and his personal life philosophies, so I let it slide. He pauses again, perhaps thinking of a generationally appropriate metaphor, one that might convey the unruliness of a fully digital and ever-shifting culture as perceived by someone who made his name by obsessively describing a more composed and largely analog one.
“It’s like I’m playing Tetris,” he says, “and at first, the pieces are slow. But now they’re coming faster and there are more of them. Even though I’m able to handle it, I know soon I will not be able to. Then the day ends, and I start again the next day. But I always feel like eventually I’m going to get to the day when I can’t handle it anymore, when things have changed too much.”