(Does it Matter that) Chuck Klosterman Wore Converse to the Gladstone Hotel?

KlostermanIn the Times review of Chuck Klosterman’s latest book, I Wear the Black Hat, the author is described as “the envy of every culture critic who ever tottered home from a Starbucks laptop session with his clothes smelling of caffeine and cremated ideas.”

(Full disclosure: this writer often drinks caffeine and cremates ideas at your local Starbucks. Also, I envy Chuck Klosterman.)

As such, like so many bespectacled Starbucks frequenters, I too was at the Gladstone a few weeks back to catch the best-selling essayist on a Canadian stage. With each new beer received, the banter got wittier, the depth of argument deeper and the indie-rock references, well, there were many. That is to say Chuck Klosterman in person, in black Converse, is every bit the author in his books: nerdy, funny, bright and egocentric.

The writer from Minnesota is easy to underestimate. Getting into law school is perceived by most as a difficult, honourable accomplishment. Writing about what makes Perez Hilton a villain, à la Klosterman’s new book, is not.

Read a page of anything he’s written. Sure, the references he uses to illustrate his points are the same poppy ones that pass along our news feeds and Twitter screens, but the guy now serving as the Ethicist at The New York Times is also connecting disparate popular media markers (from Star Wars to Spice Girls) with creative new ideas and complex chains of thought. In answer to one fan asking about shock tactics on the Internet, Klosterman explained why he’s not worried. The average 9-year-old boy today, he said, has probably seen more porn online than grown men generations prior ever did and the perverse result is the kid thus becomes quickly inured to subsequent shock tactics, thereby nullifying their effect. This is what makes Klosterman clever. The obvious porn observation alone is the stuff of bad stand-up. Taking the thought to its end is why we paid $8 to watch a guy promote a book.

Said guy’s penetrating self-awareness is another reason, which, to pull a Klosterman, is not dissimilar from Kanye West, at least according to the author’s own analysis of the ever controversial hip hop megastar. Kanye should be “given some latitude because he might be an authentic genius,” Klosterman told the crowd. A kind of “conscious” genius: one savvy enough to understand what he is doing. “Nothing is accidental, but so good as to seem accidental.” Or was that just Klosterman describing himself?

No surprise then to find the ultra successful writer recognizes the brand he has perfected. He told us he set out to write his latest book as a “500-page, super comprehensive” tome sans swear words or footnotes. He created all sorts of strange rules for himself, but in the end it didn’t matter; the book turned out like all his others: “Short, mostly about me.” He was quick to defend this too. “You know how many books I’ve stopped reading because they’re too short? Zero.”

See. Clever.

Everything Klosterman does hits the funny bone or the clever bone. Sounds a bit like the central thesis of his new book about villains that defines them as “knowing everything but caring about nothing.”

In his cynicism and brilliance, Klosterman on stage kept reminding me of Louis CK. With one glaring difference. Alongside CK’s overflowing anger and narcissism, the comedian has kids, whom he loves. It’s this love – which shines through his bitter act – that balances the humour.

I can’t say this about Klosterman. Not that a cultural critic need be loveable, or a (good) dad like Louis CK for that matter, but needn’t there be something beyond the witty and clever?

During the Q & A, an adoring fan pushed Klosterman on his politics. The fan wanted the famous writer to stand up for something. Why doesn’t he? Klosterman had a clever answer I can’t honestly remember except that it amused everyone. I’m still wondering how many, however, it satisfied.

But then maybe I’m just jealous.