Chuck Klosterman’s new book digs into philosophical questions that shape modern culture
Chuck Klosterman’s short-story collection “Raised in Captivity,” began life as several years of odd thoughts and made-up conversations saved on the author’s phone. It became 34 slices of fictional life threaded with strands of sci-fi, absurdist humor and even a little horror that reads like the literary equivalent of “Black Mirror.” These situations that Klosterman, the author of books like “But What If We’re Wrong? Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past” and the essay collection “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto,” created are certainly strange, and sometimes deeply unsettling, but they aren’t that far removed from our own reality.
Klosterman’s background as a journalist and pop culture critic informs the collection, the works within often reflecting the themes that have permeated his nonfiction work. “Blizzard of Summer” steps inside a meeting where a band struggles with the realization that their song has become a hit with racists. In “Reality Apathy,” the distinction between real and fake has nearly vanished. Through fiction, he asks the philosophical questions that shape modern American culture: What is an artist’s responsibility? What happens when fakes are so prevalent that we stop believing anything?
Klosterman spoke with The Times by phone from his office in Portland, Ore., where he has been living since 2017. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
There are a few stories in here where the premise seems to be that these seeming strangers know more about a person than they really should. I was wondering where you were coming from with that. Is that a commentary on privacy in the smartphone age?
I don’t know about that. I would say this: One of my fears in life is that everybody knows something obvious about me and I am the only person who can’t recognize this. The reason I have that fear is because I see it in other people. I very often see people who don’t seem to understand that the most obvious thing about their personality, the defining quality of who they are, is a quality that they themselves are not aware of and may, in fact, believe that they have the opposite personality.
We have a limited perspective. We have a perspective of how the world looks through our own eyes. Everyone else has a multifaceted perspective of seeing us from different angles and different kinds of experiences and they get the inference of what we say instead of the intention. That might be part of it.
I also just think that the more you think about reality, the more confusing it becomes. That’s a very good question and the fact that you perceive it as that does not mean that I’m necessarily disagreeing with it. I just can’t say that I thought of it at the time.
Does television and film today influence how you wrote these stories?
I definitely think so. I think that’s probably something that’s been true my whole life.
There’s a certain kind of person, a certain kind of writer, that you might meet. They seem to have an almost adversarial relationship with those types of media. You don’t hear this much anymore, but in the ‘80s and, particularly, the ‘90s, it was common to hear people who would say, “Oh, I don’t even own a TV. I don’t own a television, I don’t know what you’re talking about, I like to read or whatever, I have no idea: ‘Friends,’'Seinfeld,’ who are these people?”
I’m not like that at all. I consume everything. I like the idea of sharing some of the same experiences that you can have with music or film or television or visual art.
In some ways, I thought the stories were an antithesis to what’s really popular in television right now, in that it’s not this epic saga building to a decisive finale like “Game of Thrones.” But it is similar to “Black Mirror,” similar to “Russian Doll,” in the way it brings together issues with threads of science fiction and horror.
“Black Mirror” is a good comparison. If somebody asked me, “what are these stories like?” and they just wanted me to give them the most cursory description, I would say that they’re a little bit like “Twilight Zone” episodes or “Black Mirror” episodes. That’s sort of how I would envision them.
To your larger point, that’s one of the strange advantages a writer has over other kinds of creative people. Books aren’t that popular. If I sell 50,000 copies of this book in hardcover, it’s going to be seen as a huge success. If the last episode of “Game of Thrones” had been only watched by 50,000 people, everybody at HBO would lose their job. I don’t have to worry about extending what I do to people who are only casually interested. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be Taylor Swift and look at what you’re doing and say, “I think this is good, but how is it going to do in a stadium in Sydney, Australia?” It’s not like that for me.
Certainly, yes, it would be more commercially viable for me to just keep writing essay collections or if I wrote right now a non-fiction book about Trump, you’re going to be successful. That’s just how it is now. But you can’t have your career be like that. You can only do what you’re compelled to do. I’m really lucky that the stakes for me to be successful are pretty low. If a small number of people love this book, it’s successful.
In fact, I could argue it’s successful just because I like it. I’m hesitant to say this because it sounds like this is the kind of thing people say when they’re promoting the book and I hate that kind of bull …, but it’s true. This is the most fun that I’ve had writing a book since the first one.
What made it so fun for you?
I don’t know. It just was. I looked forward to going out to my office every day. It felt legitimately creative.
I love writing nonfiction. It’s not like I’m going to stop doing that. I’m working on a nonfiction book now. But when you’re doing nonfiction, it’s like every sentence I type, I re-read like a critic who hates me. I read everything I do in nonfiction with this adversarial perspective because that’s just how it is. Nonfiction is a little like bowling. You can be perfect. You can try to be perfect. If the facts are all right, the argument is sound, you’ve examined all the perspectives and the writing is engaging, you’ve written a perfect, nonfiction sentence. Fiction is different. It’s totally subjective. It was almost like I could daydream and then work at the same time.
Chuck Klosterman will appear at Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood on Tuesday, July 23, at 6:30 p.m. for a discussion, led by writer and The Ringer editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey, and book signing.
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