In my last post, I wrote about how great it was to take a day off and just read books because the power went out for most of a day. As of this writing, the power has been out for six days (more or less, it came back on for a few hours a couple of nights ago and then went out again – it’s been a real emotional rollercoaster around here). And, while the novelty of living like a caveperson has definitely worn off, the great book binge of late 2015 continues unabated. It’s strange having no other input right now. Well, books and watching my tiny dogs do their very best polar bear impressions in a foot and a half of snow – it’s pitiful but hilarious. I’ve been without outside human contact for far too long. I think I’m getting weird. You’d think living in such isolation for so long would have trained me at least a little for something like this, but I can still feel the weirdness creeping.
Anyway, with all that in mind, I bring you:
A Tale of Two Chucks
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Now is the winter of our disconnection…sorry, I’ll stop. I don’t remember the rest of that quote anyway.
Chuck the First – Encyclopedia Klosterman
When I grow up, I want to be Chuck Klosterman. Not because I’m not awkward enough already (I am) and not just because he’s an amazing writer (he is), but because the man is a fucking font of music history and trivia. Furthermore, he’s the perfect age to love and hate all the music I, too, love and hate (although not in the same combinations). Perhaps it’s because I’m from a very small town where I had very little access to new music or people who gave a shit about music, or maybe it’s because I spent so many post-Napster years without internet access, but I feel like I could be a million times more knowledgeable about music and not even come close to scratching the surface of what Klosterman knows. To be fair, though, it’s been his job to know. He was a music and pop culture journalist for SPIN and Esquire (among others) back when that job was amazing, and he was an obsessive fan for years before that. Where I made books my friends in my youth, he, apparently, kept the company of a badass record collection and actual rock stars.
Besides so thoroughly knowing his shit, the thing I dig about Klosterman is how he routinely takes two (or twenty) obscure songs/bands/movies/ideas and synthesizes their analyses into a perfect golden nugget of cultural or psychological insight. Contrarily (or possibly merely as an extension of this way of thinking), he also takes a simple, or even shallow, idea and dives incredibly deep with it. Examples of this from IV (the book I read yesterday) include: interviewing Robert Plant and actually arguing with him about whether or not Led Zeppelin invented heavy metal; deconstructing voyeurism and sexuality in late-90s America in an utterly batshit and mostly pointless pantsless conversation with Britney Spears; and (probably my favorite) contending that Lost and Survivor could never have been ratings competitors without the other, that they’re two sides of the same coin, conjoined twins of a sort.
So many essayists go into a piece with the intention of beating the reader over the head with their precious, meticulously cultivated point. Klosterman rarely does that. Maybe because, as a journalist, so many of his stories centered around interviews, experiences, moments that were, much like the work of the Romantic poets, “recalled later, in tranquility.” One gets the sense that he’s perfectly happy to ask “what just happened?” or “what does this mean?” and never come up with an answer.
At the heart of everything Klosterman writes is the conceit that we are bound together more than we are divided by our enthusiasms. We can and will always find common ground in the things we know/love/hate communally. In one essay called “Five Interesting Corpses” (which is about Johnny Carson, the overabundance of choice in a consumerist society, monogamy, and, weirdly, that summer that all of America knew the words to that one Outkast song – seriously, this is how this man thinks), he posits a scenario in which one could conceivably sit down at any table in a bar filled with very, very different types of folks and still find something to talk about with every stranger. He writes:
“This is not the purpose of art and culture, but it’s probably the biggest social benefit; these shared experiences are how we connect to other people, and it’s how we understand our own identity. However, all the examples I mentioned are specific and personal; they are only pockets of shared existence. They are things individual people choose to understand, and finding others who understand them equally are products of coincidence.”
Way to sum up everything I’ve ever written in three sentences there, Chuck. I might as well stop now. And, hey, many props for correct and unabashed use of semicolons. Respect.
(Sidebar, tacked on later: it has come to my attention that in my absence from the modern world Lemmy Kilmister died. Rest in peace, sir. You will be missed. I bring this up because in wanting to write about Lemmy, Motörhead, and metal in general, I realize that I’ve still got too much Klosterman floating around in my bloodstream. In order to not ape or inadvertently quote him, may I suggest that we all just go read/reread both Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live, his amazing books about heavy metal and dead rock stars, respectively. And listen to some Motörhead. It’s good shit. Maybe rock some muttonchops if you can.)
Chuck the Second – Real American Weirdo
Chuck Palahniuk confounds me. Finishing one of his books always feels a bit like realizing how dirty a lake is only as you’re getting out of it, after swimming gleefully in filth for hours. Super fun, but tiring and a little scummy. I read Rant right after finishing that Klosterman book, and I must say that combination was quite toothpaste-and-orange-juice-ish.
(How many weird analogies does it take to describe Palahniuk? I dunno. Let’s find out!)
Like most bookish children of the 90s, I came to Palahniuk because of Fight Club. Much to my chagrin, I still have not read all of his work, but everything I’ve read I’ve adored. It fucks me up, though. I’m always a little disoriented when I come back to the real world, but it’s in a completely different and unexpected way with each book. And while that may sound like criticism, I assure you that admitting something wormed its way under my skin and I can still feel it squirming is, indeed, high praise. The only other author who does that to me is Clive Barker, and even his stuff is inconsistently squirmy. And maybe Irvine Welsh, I suppose, but for different reasons.
I think what makes Palahniuk’s fiction challenging is that, inevitably, as you figure out what’s going on, that new understanding changes what you thought you already understood. And it happens again. And then again. And then five more times. As such, it becomes nearly impossible to pick out any shreds of deeper meaning while desperately hanging on to a flaming, speeding narrative by your fucking fingernails. This is both a positive and a negative experience for me, as a person who is doomed to think like a literature major forever. On the one hand, my instinct is to analyze and deconstruct as I go, constantly looking for comparisons and symbols and references (which is why I think/talk/write in analogies). It’s tremendously frustrating when that becomes difficult, although it seems both selfish and shallow to say so. On the other hand, there’s something blissful about being forced to just let go, to buy the ticket and take the ride in a Hunter Thompson or Bill Hicks sense. So rarely do I actually relinquish control of what I’m reading (which is a completely whacked thing to even say), it always comes as something of a shock to the system.
All of which is to say: there’s no way in hell I can summarize this or any other Palahniuk book for you. Just read them and we can talk after. Something something culture bubbles. Briefly and subjectively, though:
Rant = exactly four layers of mindfuck, all of which are spoilers, but please please please go get a rabies vaccine immediately
Pygmy = I couldn’t speak proper English for a week and it was totally worth it
Haunted = gave me nightmares, made me want to turn the book into a movie and also to have a plan for any possible future cannibalism situations
Lullaby = complete, perfect distilled terror of babies and baby-having culture
I don’t really have a good, tidy way to wrap up this post. I think I may be out of practice. And with all the clean country living, it’s starting to feel like one of those epistolary adventure novels up in here, isn’t it? “So cold. So alone. Tell my mother I love her. Goodbye, cruel world. Rosebud.” Or something like that. I feel like I should be more prepared for these sorts of catastrophic disconnections. Maybe invest in carrier pigeons. Learn smoke signals. Support the reintroduction of the telegraph, perhaps (come on hipsters, you’ll love it). Get me a snazzy butter churn. Do the Amish have wifi? I could go learn from them. Also, is it a good idea to pedal a bicycle fifteen miles uphill in two feet of snow just to go get beer or will I die? The downhill bit doesn’t seem like it will be a problem. I’ll let you know. As long as the power stays on.