Tuesday, July 07, 2009

An addition to Famous North Dakotans? Thoughts on Chuck Klosterman's work

After reviewing a few lists of famous North Dakotans I didn't find Chuck Klosterman on those lists. A few theories and thoughts: 1) Does a famous North Dakotan have to be born in North Dakota? According to his profile, though he was born in Minnesota, he was raised in Wyndmere, North Dakota, graduated from North Dakota, and probably wrote one of the more famous pieces of fiction based on a composite North Dakota town, Downtown Owl. Having not read Downtown Owl (it's on my list), but having recently completed Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, 2) I now wonder whether North Dakota doesn't want to claim him. Some of his work is a little explicit for all of those Norwegian-Americans in North Dakota. 3) What distinguishes someone as "famous?" Is it that their names are part of wider public discourse? That their name is recognized by a wider audience? Klosterman has written for Spin, Esquire, ESPN the Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, to name a few.

Even though I lived in South Dakota for over 8 years and admired the state, I always thought North Dakota was a little bit cooler than South Dakota for a few reasons:

1. North Dakota colleges and universities are way better at sports than South Dakota colleges and universities (though the gap may be closing). Until a few years ago, the University of North Dakota had the only Division I sports team in the Dakotas (UND Hockey). UND Hockey is really cool (literally and figuratively).

2. North Dakota is much more obscure (which I consider cool). You have to want to go there. South Dakota is drive-through country--with Mt. Rushmore, Wall Drug, and being on Interstate 90--the great path from the West to the Northeast, New England and the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention several large metropolitan areas along the way, many folks can say they've at least driven through South Dakota, and for seemingly good reasons. North Dakota also doesn't have a city over 100,000 people and doesn't have as much easy access popular culture on well-traveled paths as South Dakota.

3. North Dakota has easier access to the bountiful and mysterious north that is Canada.

4. I suppose North Dakota is literally cooler in temperature than South Dakota.

5. Chuck Klosterman.

After reading one of his fabulous articles in ESPN the Magazine a few years ago, I picked up a copy of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto. I enjoyed this book as I resonated with the Gen X perspective, but also appreciated the anti-academic, yet still sharp and intelligent observation and writing. Chuck Klosterman IV is a similar product to Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs in its intelligence, but it tracks his work (mostly from Spin and Esquire) for a decade. The (London) Evening Standard called Klosterman's work "Ferociously clever and ferociously self-deprecating." Klosterman accomplishes this rare (unique?) combination with tight and economical writing. I particularly enjoyed the introductions to each of his columns/essays. For example:

"You are offered a Brain Pill. If you swallow this pill, you will become 10 percent more intelligent than you currently are...to all other people you meet, you will seem 20 percent less intelligent...Do you take this pill (p. 259)?" This is an introduction to a specific critique of Entertainment Weekly's look at Guilty Pleasures in entertainment. The introduction is good on its own, but it's even better when considered with the essay.

I also appreciated his look at the useless and misguided level of astonishment in cultural critique: "Why do non religious people think that the Christian Right shouldn't have a voice in government? Why do conservatives get angry bout the prospect of gay marriage, even if they've never met a gay person and never will...culture can't be wrong...people can be wrong, and movements can be wrong. But culture--as a whole--cannot be wrong. Culture is just there (p. 267).

The following could be classified as a Gen X perspective, but what I appreciate about the following quote is that Klosterman articulates my reflections on politics and public discourse better than I can myself (I know because I've tried a few times in this blog and foolishly on message boards): "Whenever I meet someone who openly identifies themselves as a Republican or a Democrat, my immediate thought is always 'Well, this person might be interesting, but they'll never say anything about politics that is remotely useful to me.' I refuse to discuss abortion with anyone who is pro-life or pro-choice...All the world's stupidest people are either zealots or atheists. If you want to truly deduce how intelligent someone is, just ask this person how they feel about any issue that doesn't have an answer; the more certainty they express, the less sense they have. This is because certainty only comes from dogma (p. 240)."

I value this kind of thought, but it sure is hard to articulate challenging thoughts such as these from within the church especially from the pulpit or leadership position. Few people in the Church will question the Church in a valuable way. I think there is too much on the line on multiple levels. I certainly don't have the courage to do it on many occasions. From where will the next Martin Luther come? Luther was great thinker with a heart for the common person, a love for God and the mysteries of God, and someone with the courage to articulate where the Church is lost while still holding a love for the Church.

I'm not sure whether Klosterman is intentionally left off the famous North Dakotans lists for his challenging writing, or that he frankly writes about sex and drugs at the dark side of humanity at times. He doesn't glorify the darkness of humanity, but he asks great questions about it and makes great observations. This writing brings to mind the seminal Gen X writer, Douglas Coupland, with his sometimes dizzying prose, dancing the fence of disbelief suspended. But Klosterman's journalistic background also takes his low culture philosophy to a place Coupland cannot go: some of the things Klosterman reports could not possibly be made up. This makes Klosterman a way cool North Dakotan, even if he may not widely be claimed as famous.

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