I grew up on Def Leppard and Bon Jovi, so I was congenitally predisposed to like Chuck Klosterman’s first book, “Fargo Rock City” (2001), an account of taking hair metal very seriously in the 1980s. If you’d ever resented the hierarchies imposed by rock criticism — Liz Phair good, Twisted Sister dumb — it was refreshing to find that resentment validated:
I’m a metal fan, okay? … I know I make it sound like analyzing this music was all some sort of intellectual exercise, but it’s part of my life. And for a few uncomfortable moments of my past, it was pretty much the only thing in my life.
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Dude was waving my banner all over the place.
Since "Fargo Rock City," though, Klosterman has written progressively less interesting books, a statement I'd defend if I'd felt compelled to finish any of them besides the new "I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)," which I finished only because I'm getting paid to write this review. It felt as if something was at stake in Klosterman's apologia for the metal of his youth: Here was a terribly smart young man who was tired of being informed that he liked the wrong music, came from the wrong town and simply thought the wrong thoughts. Cultural criticism, at its most dynamic, is about upending our assumptions — about making us doubt our own aesthetic taste and criteria. "The universal acceptance of Van Halen … has more social and intellectual value than anything Thurston Moore ever tried to teach us," Klosterman wrote in "Fargo Rock City," and you wanted to tattoo it on Robert Christgau's forehead.
Here, by contrast, is the sort of thing that passes for insight in "I Wear the Black Hat": "'The Prince' was very controversial for a very long time, but those who have studied the writer most tend to believe it was a criticism of human nature." Nothing Klosterman has to say about "The Prince" couldn't be gleaned from a quick skim of SparkNotes (and, anyway, this standard interpretation, as Harvey C. Mansfield notes, "make[s] Machiavelli less interesting"). So why is he writing about Machiavelli? Because the new book is, ostensibly, about how villainy is in large part a contextual construction (this could be related to Klosterman's new gig writing The Ethicist column for The New York Times Magazine). But this mélange of observations and witticisms is far too scattershot to support a single overarching thesis. What do Machiavelli, the Eagles, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adolf Hitler, Bill Clinton, Lars von Trier and Batman have in common? Someone somewhere at some time — or some people in some places at different times, or most people most places at most times, or maybe everyone everywhere at all times — has viewed them as villainous or evil or bad. Or something.
This is a book that proposes to consider the horrific things that human beings are capable of doing to one another and to other animals. And yet it isn't interested in Nietzsche's distinction between "bad" and "evil," or in Hannah Arendt's analysis of the Eichmann trial, or in the vast tradition of Judeo-Christian theodicy, or even in contemporary accounts of genocide in Rwanda and blah blah blah. I know: it's a Chuck Klosterman book. The guy wrote "Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs." What do I expect?
For starters, I expect writers to choose their subjects with care. A New York Times review of "I Wear the Black Hat" called Klosterman "an intellectual dandy." Maybe. But the impression I take from the book is of a talented critic who has no idea what he wants to write about.
I was going to say this is a glib book that wants to be a serious book, but that's not quite it. It's a glib book that knows it's supposed to want to be a serious book but can't muster the enthusiasm. There are a dozen half-baked pages on Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky that contain less insight than a single sentence of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" (Clinton did a lot more lasting harm to the welfare of lower-income Americans than is conveyed by the weasel phrase "economic compromises"). There are half-baked musings on Aleister Crowley and Wilt Chamberlin. There is a half-baked chapter on Hitler that begins by acknowledging that it's half-baked. What if Klosterman had taken the question of why Hitler seems more evil than Stalin or Mao seriously? He might have read, for instance, Arendt's "The Origins of Totalitarianism" or Slavoj Zizek's "In Defense of Lost Causes" (instead of, for God's sake, Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler") which happen to consider this very question.
And, yes, a book that drew upon Nietzsche or Arendt or Zizek would be a very different kind of book than we're accustomed to expect from Chuck Klosterman (he mentions Freud here, but only to make a throwaway joke about sexualizing everything, which does not suggest a profound acquaintance with the man's writings). But Klosterman is the one who decided to write about evil and villainy, so a very different kind of book would have been a good thing. Instead, we get a few penetrating one-liners (the Eagles "only exist as a way to think about 'the Eagles'") and a lot of rambling freshman philosophy.
What's most frustrating about "I Wear the Black Hat" is that I'd love to read a good version of it. Klosterman is right to condemn the cheap outrage that follows any offensive joke (Lars von Trier's claim to "understand Hitler"; "Girls" writer Lesley Arfin's tweet about "Precious"). He has some astute things to say about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords and about the Taylor Swift Phenomenon. And he's terrific on the assumptions he held in college that colored his disparate reactions to N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Of course he is: He's always been good at analyzing his own initially simplistic responses to cultural complexity. When he writes about pop culture as if his reception of it made a difference to the world, the results can be thrilling:
I was driving through suburban Minneapolis at dusk when something off "The Wall" came on the radio, prompting me to conclude that I was being intellectually crucified by an army of forty-year-old library patrons who couldn't accept that cannabis was still illegal.
If Klosterman can be this funny and smart (two adjectives to be found, for good reason, in every review of his work) about Pink Floyd, I don't know why he wants to write about Hitler. On the evidence of "I Wear the Black Hat," he doesn't know, either.
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection, "Alien vs. Predator," and the forthcoming book of critcism, "Equipment for Living."
"I Wear the Black Hat"
By Chuck Klosterman, Scribner, 224 pages, $25Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun