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Wednesday, April 11,2012

Gen X social critic talks pop culture at Ohio University

By Matt Lardner
Photo Credits: Dustin Franz
Photo Caption: Chuck Klosterman speaking at OU's MemAud.

On Monday night, the Ohio University's Memorial Auditorium audience was rampant with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. But it's not what you're thinking.

Journalist and critically acclaimed author Chuck Klosterman was on hand as a guest speaker for the Kennedy Lecture Series, and for a subsequent book signing. Many attendees brought copies of his most commercially successful book, a collection of essays titled "Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs" that has garnered lavish praise and comparison to cult cultural voice David Foster Wallace.

Series chair Scott Moody, an OU biology professor, came out to smatterings of applause; it was unclear if the audience was sounding their support for the lecture series, or if they mistook him for the featured speaker. Moody ran through Klosterman's journalistic accolades, which include stints in Fargo, N.D., and Akron, Ohio, before the author headed to New York City and ran the gamut of highly circulated publications including Spin, Esquire, ESPN and the Washington Post. Moody then compared him to Mark Twain, the timelessly quotable American literary juggernaut, before ceding the stage to Klosterman

At one point, Klosterman disparaged vanity as an undesirable trait, and his appearance certainly supported that sentiment: relaxed-fitting trousers, a casual argyle shirt, and an unkempt auburn mop complete with matching beard. Klosterman was kinetic, gesticulating with every passionate point. He's like that cool history teacher you had in high school, except Klosterman's academic palate has an Appetite for Destruction.

Growing up in rural North Dakota, Klosterman was an avid hard rock and hair metal fan, a genre he chose over country music, the only other option on local radio. Because he wasn't exposed to more highbrow forms of culture, Klosterman copped to "treating Guns N' Roses like it's art." He channeled this interest into an obsession, profiling metal in the Midwest in his first novel, "Fargo Rock City."

Klosterman did his research before his first visit to Athens, shouting out local (but internationally renowned) metal band, Skeletonwitch, before riffing on how a skinny witch with body-image issues is much less scary than a full-figured one.

Klosterman boasts a professional background befitting a storyteller, and he didn't disappoint. His skill in crafting characters oozed off the page and into his lecture. Klosterman talked about the weird city of Austin, Texas, a land of proudly zany characters. At one book reading he did in Austin, he recalled, two men who were a bit too punctual admitted to dropping acid before the event because they had a half-hour to spare before it began. He pointed out that a reading in a bookstore had plenty of things to kill a bit of time with, before remarking, "I bet (acclaimed novelist) Salman Rushdie doesn't have people do acid before his appearances!" Also Klosterman referenced an Austin cabdriver who believes she is Stevie Nicks reincarnated, which he wrote off as unlikely if only because, "Stevie Nicks is still alive."

A MAJOR FOCUS OF KLOSTERMAN'S lecture was chance. He recounted a number of breaks in his career that depended upon impeccable timing, and attributed most of his success to a series of fortunate events. He intended on going to graduate school after earning a degree in journalism from the University of North Dakota, but seized an opportunity to write for the Fargo Forum's weekly insert titled "Rage," which Klosterman explained was the paper's faux alt.weekly attempt to connect with Generation X readers, a demographic that they finally recognized just as he was between ventures.

When Klosterman lost out on an opening he was vying for, he found out where the chosen writer had been hired away from, and applied for that vacancy before it was even posted. "They probably thought I was psychic," he quipped.

Chance continued to pop up in his life. Klosterman told how an interning friend connected him with a firebrand literary agent, how a rejection letter helped forge his now-famous intimately anecdotal writing style, and how he obtained an editor through a cold-call with a tactfully deceptive bluff.

Fame was also a crucial subject of the lecture. Klosterman aptly described his current experience as "dreamlike, but not my dream." He called his fame "strange," and pointed out the fleeting nature of literary celebrity: that in 50 years, nobody is going to remember him or any other famous writer right now, so people should write for themselves, because nobody else will care in the future.

EVER THE CULTURAL OPPORTUNIST, Klosterman abandoned standard lecture form in order to conduct a sociological experiment. He posed a hypothetical situation in which you control the destiny of a young man based on whether you tell him to follow his dream or not. As for the dream, Klosterman devised an escalating series of 30 aspirations, starting with the practical and becoming progressively risky or unacceptable. He had the audience all stand up, and then sit down when they would not advise the boy to follow his dream. Some were mundane; many, such as the desire to become "the Bob Dylan of air-conditioning" or a dream of opening a "secretly racist preschool," drew laughs and raised eyebrows.

He was looking to find out where people draw the line between acceptable goals and those that are worthless and taboo. Some of the audience bowed out after artistic aspirations were introduced, while a stipulation that the young man could murder the guilty brought the majority of the audience to their seats and gave Klosterman an irresistible opening for a Rick Perry death penalty joke.

Only a handful remained standing at the end, a group who believed that any dream, including suicide, deserved encouragement.

One question from the crowd Q&A asking about what makes art valid morphed into Klosterman's diatribe on what actually constitutes validity. He said he needs this technique to extract clarity from cultural cesspools such as The Sims video game franchise and reality television.

Klosterman's career is as diverse as his lecture range. He has published fiction, nonfiction and essay collection, and has covered diverse subjects ranging from art to music to sports, the latter of which he currently covers as a staff writer for sports blog Grantland. His publisher website offers e-collections of Klosterman's work, categorized into sections on rock, pop, sports, film and TV, media and culture, and living and society.

This cultural guru was called on as an oracle Monday evening, asked to make predictions in response to many different crowd inquiries: Want to know if dubstep is a fad or here to stay? What TV show is the corollary to the band the Smashing Pumpkins? Has soccer dug its cleats into American culture for good? Klosterman was the go-to guy for all of these. Keeping it brief, he said he believes the dubstep craze is yet another temporary electronic wave, "90210" is the TV series most similar to the Smashing Pumpkins, and soccer has created a foothold as the fourth major American sport.

But be very careful in accepting everything Klosterman said as the gospel, especially with his thoughts on lying, a quote which truly evokes the wily Twain: "Anybody who says they are a good liar obviously is not, because any legitimately savvy liar would always insist they're honest about everything."


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