Friday, August 7, 2009
Weschler contra Klosterman
I feel like I should be writing. I don’t know why. But my laptop is open and I’m listening to music in the dark, which is usually what I do when I write. I don’t have writers’ block. I have idea block. I guess this is what happens when you live with words like I do. So I think I’m going to try something. I’m going to write with no idea of where I’m going. I mean, I do that a lot. That should be fairly obvious, especially from a few of my recent posts, but even with those I usually have some idea of where I want to go or at least where I want to start. Now? Nothin’. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about voice. On the heels of being told I need to bring myself to the stories I tell it seems like a natural thing to bring up. Reading Klosterman does that, too. The thing about reading Chuck Klosterman is, no matter what he’s writing about, you’re reading about Chuck Klosterman. I don’t have a problem with that. There are some authors who can get away with it and come up with some truly profound stuff. Most of the time, though, it backfires, and backfires badly. I was at my parents’ house earlier this week and picked up a copy of Smithsonian Magazine that had a thing about finding Herod’s tomb on the cover. This, it should be no surprise, was interesting to me. I didn’t bother to read the article, though, since I kinda skimmed the first few paragraphs and mostly saw sentences that started with, or strongly featured, “I.” I’m sure you know the type of article. “I was sitting in a coffee shop drinking a skim, no-fat, double caf, half-caf, Amezzicatiato with cruelty-free whipped cream and two stir sticks. Jimmy Celebrityofthemonth pulled up, five minutes late, in a brand-new Lamborgini. I immediately thought, ‘Wow, everything they say about Jimmy is true.’” It’s fine for puff pieces. Kind of. It also works quite well when Klosterman does it, since he uses his reactions to things he experiences to draw out a larger look at the world. A.J. Jacobs used it extremely effectively in The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically. But those are projects that are specifically about what I like to call turning the personal into the universal. If I want to learn about new archaeological findings at the site of Herod’s Palace I don’t give a flying shit about how the guy in charge of the dig introduced himself to the journalist writing the piece. I want to know about the history at hand, about what went in to the find, about what aspects of the ancient Levant this information can bring to life. Primarily, I want to know about the subject, not the writer’s opinion on the subject. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I don’t want to know about the writer’s reaction to the subject. Again, if it’s Jimmy Celebrityofthemonth and a writer who has enough clout to push through a story that starts, “Everyone swoons over Jimmy but he’s actually an absolute jackass. I knew that the moment he walked in to the coffee shop, kicked a puppy, and grabbed the barista’s ass.” That would at least be interesting. This all struck me while I was reading Calamities of Exile today. Going from Klosterman to Weschler is enough to give a reader whiplash. Seriously, I should have tossed an intermediate step in there somewhere. Perhaps I’ll cleanse the palate with a bit of Eggers or something next time the option to make that leap presents itself. It’s interesting. I get the distinct impression that someone – like me – who reads Lawrence Weschler should look down on someone – like me – who reads Klosterman. Weschler writes books on subjects with substance, with heady titles like Calamities of Exile and A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers. Weschler has written profile pieces on Iraqi ex-pats, people who fought against torturous regimes in Brazil, abstract artist Robert Irwin, and Art Spiegelman, the cartoonist who turned his own father’s story of the Holocaust in to a book where the Jews were mice and the Germans cats. He gets to the very heart of some of the weightiest stories. Klosterman’s best-known book is called Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. He’s written pieces on Pam Anderson as the sex symbol for her generation, taking a cross-country tour of places where rock stars died, and profile pieces on tribute bands, Bono, and Britney Spears. The way they place themselves in the stories they write are as wildly different as the subjects they discuss. Weschler fades in to the background. Even when he mentions himself, it’s fleeting, simply setting the stage, saying, “I met so-and-so here,” to make sure we know where everything goes in that person’s world. For all his skill as a writer, for all his ability to offer a sublime turn of phrase, Weschler’s supreme gift is in something that’s singularly lacking from probably every other writer in the world. He allows his subjects the chance to say the truly profound things. So often while reading Weschler I see a particular turn of phrase, think, “I love Lawrence Weschler,” then realize that he didn’t say it at all. In attempting to convey Kanan Makiya’s discontent running his father’s London office while he really wanted to be embroiled in the politics of the Middle East, Weschler offers: “On the side, he went on with his political work, writing long, sophisticated analytical articles on various Middle Eastern themes. ‘My friends were all trying to deal with the concrete problems of the world,’ he commented to me. ‘More often than not, I was stuck dealing with the worldly problems of concrete.’”1 Klosterman is front and center in the stories he writes. He makes sure we know how he reacted to this or that, makes sure we know what he said in response. His quotes come in the rapid-fire salvo of the reporter looking for the scoop. His subjects speak for themselves, but their words are rarely allowed to stand on their own. Klosterman filters the reader’s reaction through his own in his relentless search for a point, a conclusion. Their styles betray the differences in their subjects and the constraints of how they gather information. Weschler sits down with his subjects, studies them, understands them. They’re a slow discussion that seems to unfold over weeks or months. His profiles present themselves as a conversation, but as often as not they come as close as possible to a conversation between the subject and the reader. Klosterman gets a single interview and throws questions at them, then tries to piece together a story from what little he was able to glean in those moments. The pieces are over quickly and we move on to the next bit, not much older and not much wiser. Read a lot of Klosterman and you may learn a little about his subjects but you’ll probably learn a lot about Klosterman himself. Read a lot of Weschler and you’ll learn an awful lot about his subjects but Weschler will remain a mystery. This shouldn’t be surprising, really. Weschler wrestles with the big issues we face. Totalitarianism and torture aren’t subjects to be taken lightly and dismissed. When he writes about art and artists he tends to focus on the people who create works that will one day be considered timeless or the people who deal with things that already are timeless. Klosterman deals with the popular, the disposable. Britney Spears is really just a memory now, replaced by Miley Cyrus, who will, in turn, be replaced by someone else in five or six years. Weschler works with that which is considered high art. Klosterman’s subject is what we call low art. We place a bright line between those comments. The lovers of Weschler’s subject are derided as pointy-headed intellectuals while the lovers of Klosterman’s are considered uncouth and unrefined. There might be a worthwhile point to that distinction, but those who dismiss one in favor of the other impoverish themselves. In Weschler’s grand expositions we see the little changes over time that build up to something huge and different. It doesn’t matter if he’s covering the way movements in art build on that which came before or how movements of humanity build on the little successes or failures of the past. His focus on one particular topic drives home the social evolution of humanity. In Klosterman’s schizophrenic jumps from one topic to the next we see the opposite. Pop culture doesn’t evolve so much as it repackages itself for the new generation. The more things change, the old saw goes, the more they stay the same. In the so-called “high art” and history we get an overall view of how humanity and society have changed. In the so-called low art we get a snapshot of how society looks in that moment. The former allows us to understand society as a whole. The latter allows us to understand how society influences us. In order to understand our society as a whole we need someone with the vision and wisdom of Lawrence Weschler to illuminate the big issues. We need to separate ourselves from the things we look at, because ultimately the story of society is too big for the individual to truly understand and appreciate. In order to understand where we fit in society we need someone with the self-absorption and smarts of Chuck Klosterman. Weschler takes the universal story and makes it personal by finding the people who contribute to the change in society and introducing them to his readers. Klosterman takes the personal and makes it universal by echoing his readers’ own confusion at the rapidly changing world. That’s why we need both, the detached and wise and the engaged and wild. It’s why we need both the high art and low. It’s why we need the bird’s eye view and the microscope. It’s why I read both Lawrence Weschler and Chuck Klosterman. It’s why I see no contradiction in doing so. ---------------------------- 1Weschler, Lawrence. Calamities of Exile. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.