“He wasn’t trying to be a jackass,” begins one story in Chuck Klosterman’s “Raised in Captivity,” which marks the first short fiction collection by the pop culture critic. “He was trying to make conversation.”
There may be no tidier way to summarize the often contrarian, pop culture-obsessed and often awe-inspiringly granular writing style of this longtime essayist — and Klosterman admits as much in the brief piece titled “Just Asking Questions.”
In it, one Klosterman-esque character (known only as “jackass”) interrogates the other about describing an ex’s infidelity with “his best friend” and questions whether the phrase is true or a trick of managing a painful memory given the scenario is something of a cliché. In building a case for his argument, jackass annoys his friend and — depending on whether you’re intrigued by these sorts of thought experiments — maybe the reader as well.
Even to Klosterman, his curiosities aren’t for everyone. But this is the kind of strange, sharply detailed and often slyly funny examination of cultural behavior and norms he does unlike anyone else.
Whether through books delving into his Midwestern youth and love for ’80s hair metal (“Fargo Rock City”), personal relationships (“Killing Yourself To Live: 85% of a True Story”) or conventional wisdom (“But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past”), there is no subject too ephemeral or superficial to pull at from all angles. Little wonder Klosterman briefly wrote the New York Times Magazine advice column “The Ethicist,” where he examined moral quandaries with a jeweler’s eye and an eagerness to explore contradictions.
Also writing for outlets such as Spin, GQ and ESPN’s short-lived sports-centric spinoff Grantland, Klosterman has tried his hand at fiction but with mixed results. The 2008 novel “Downtown Owl” was an affectionately drawn if at times downcast trip back to the ’80s North Dakota of Klosterman’s past, while 2011’s “The Visible Man” felt more superficial, like an overwrought distillation of his fascination with ethical questions constructed around a character’s ability to become invisible.
“Raised in Captivity” can display both of those qualities, though to be fair it’s hard to feel like a conventional fiction experience is really what Klosterman is after. With most stories rising out of an unexpected situation or the consideration of a single question or idea over the span of just a few pages, the book’s scattershot style earns its front cover label as “fictional nonfiction.”
For instance, what would happen if a high school football coach pursued victory by running only one play, one designed to exploit the game’s rules and probabilities? “Execute Again” views such a monomaniacal pursuit through the eyes of one of the coach’s players, and Klosterman revels in imagining both the sort of person who commits to that idea and the subsequent fallout with a sports obsessive’s eye and dark humor.
Or what if a medical implant allowed fathers-to-be to experience the pain of labor on behalf of their partners? “Pain Is a Concept by Which We Measure Our God” explores the idea to its logical conclusion and, ever the pop culture polymath, Klosterman knows this sort of speculative fiction maybe sounds a little like “Black Mirror.” (“I saw this British TV show on Netflix,” a character begins before his doctor interrupts. “It’s not like that,” he says.)
With that kind of playful self-awareness, it’s hard to begrudge the bite-size ideas explored here, especially peppered with Klosterman’s sharp wit and deep-cut descriptions that will be exceptionally vivid to some but useless to those not already in his tribe. “He was unshaven and a bit slovenly, but not to the level of Aqualung,” Klosterman writes in “Never Look at Your Phone,” and while knowledge of Jethro Tull isn’t required for “Raised in Captivity,” it will round parts into higher definition.
That said, Klosterman’s interrogative nature sometimes means these stories yield little more than premises for wry jokes while others unfortunately feel as if they’re cut off too soon.
“The Secret” imagines a government agency in some undefined, increasingly unsettled future where the odds behind flipping a coin are slowly shifting, and “If Something Is Free the Product Is You” looks at a prisoner’s reflection on the value of a screwdriver with a well-drawn weariness. “If one story is enough, three stories are redundant. It doesn’t matter how well those stories are told,” he writes with an unusual spareness. “Details create contradiction and adjectives become anchors.” But just as the character has rounded into focus, Klosterman is ready to move on to the next idea.
A few stories delve into social satire, most effectively in the snapshot of a grim future consumed by “deep fake” videos in “Reality Apathy” and in “The Enemy Within,” which reimagines the internet’s “cancel culture” as a physical presence with a sort of police force that reveals the false “wokeness” of a woman’s boyfriend. Elsewhere, what begins as an easy joke about a veterinarian’s exposure to rabies in “Reasonable Apprehension” builds to a surprisingly effective indictment of the power imbalance between the sexes. But mostly, Klosterman’s far less interested in resolutions than examining the conflict.
Consider these stories the products of the kind of specific, unexpectedly divergent conversations that can come up between old friends as the hours grow late. Some are rich enough to reward further exploration, while others trail off to nowhere, but all are pleasant enough to have around. This friend just enjoys the push and pull of arguments, whether they’re based in reality or not. And he doesn’t care if he can sound like a jackass.
“Raised in Captivity”
Penguin Press, 320 pp., $26
Barton is a former Times staff writer.