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Eccentric’s Corner: Reality Tester

Chuck Klosterman still can’t stop asking whether this is all actually happening.

Klosterman has been illuminating big questions—what makes a piece of art popular? Why do we believe what other people tell us?—with cultural references from Saved by the Bell to Ted Kaczynski for over a decade. The last of seven siblings raised on his parents’ North Dakota farm, Klosterman landed a job at Spin magazine in New York City after publishing a 2001 book about the rise and fall of glam metal in the rural midwest ( Fargo Rock City ). Two memoirs, four essay collections, and two novels later, Klosterman is a regular contributor to Esquire, The New York Times Magazine , and ESPN .

The main character of your latest novel, The Visible Man, argues that we consider only what other people validate to be reality. Do you agree with him?

Very much so—if that reality is constructed. If you construct a way to be seen and no one else believes it, it’s a failure. I think things like Facebook make it easier for people to confirm their own constructions. In the late ’80s, if a 14-year-old wanted to be a goth kid, he could’ve worn eye makeup and listened to The Cure. But if other goth kids at his school were like, “You’re ridiculous, you’re not a part of our group,” then his construction would’ve failed. Now if someone does that online, anybody who disagrees can just be blocked.

How have other people’s reactions to your work confirmed, negated, or otherwise altered your own “constructions”?

I didn’t anticipate a world where things that I wrote or said in public mattered. With my first two books, Fargo Rock City and Killing Yourself to Live , I assumed that the audience was going to be small and made up of people exactly like me. It was extremely weird to me that in 1999, nobody cared what I thought about anything, and then in 2006 they cared too much. I would often find myself thinking, “What is different about who I am now as opposed to the completely socially irrelevant person I was six years ago?” Really, the only thing that has changed is other people’s perception of me.

Profession: Author, pop culture maven, sports writer. Claim to Fame: Visited—and wrote about—every site of a famous rock star’s death he could remember during a 21-day road trip from NYC to Seattle.

How do you feel about the fact that your parents have no idea what you do for a living?

My parents are completely supportive of my life without even knowing what it is. I’m actually glad they don’t read my books. I don’t want them reading about how many drugs I’ve done or all the odd relationships I’ve had. I was very worried when my first book came out that they’d read it and be disappointed. I mean, they’re very, very Catholic.

What was the little Chuck Klosterman like?

Definitely weird. I was really into the bureaucracy of playing. I pretended to hunt lions around my parents’ farm, but I was obsessed with creating hunting licenses and outlining when it would be legal to hunt. I also had a Superman suit, but I’d wear a Clark Kent suit over it and spend more time walking around my house, asking my mom, “Have you seen Superman? It’s interesting how we’re never in the same place, isn’t it?” Or, when I’d play with army men, I’d be more concerned with establishing what their conflict was and what the topography of the battlefield was than with their actual battles.

Is there is a “core Klosterman,” or can you lay claim to a “true self”?

My only consistent trait is that I’ve never lived in the present tense. I can’t even imagine what that feels like. I think it’s crazy when people say they live “in the now.” I’m constantly looking forward to, or worrying about, things in the future, or remembering things I’ve loved and hated. I believe media, culture, psychology, and sociology have made it impossible for people to understand their true selves. For example, Led Zeppelin is one of my favorite bands. But did the culture and iconography around them, or the other people I knew who liked them, create the idea that I loved them? Or did I just love their songs and everything came next? I will never know.

You once said, “Our hatred of things in culture is an attempt at reconciling what it is to be alive.” What do you mean by that?

When people talk about the things they hate, they’re setting up a framework for what seems to be tangibly or intangibly oppressing them in life. If somebody hates Jersey Shore , they’ll usually be able to explain why—like, because it values stupidity over analytical pragmatism. It’s easier to hate something than to love it because hatred is easier to quantify. Why we love something is more nebulous.

What is your biggest fear?

That I’ll lose the life I’ve been launched into—that it’ll all go away. I read one time that 99.8 percent of the world dies in the same social class they were born into. I don’t see why this wouldn’t happen to me. It’s a real driving force behind my writing: I fear that one day I’ll wake up and no longer be able to write. I don’t even know how I was able to do it in the first place. Everything changed so fast for me that it could obviously change back just as quickly, you know?

What’s one life lesson your success has taught you?

That the biggest factor in anyone’s success is chance. Nobody likes to admit that, because they want to believe they were smart and talented enough, or they busted their a** to get where they are. But chance is the biggest thing, and once you accept that, life seems scary.

Would you call yourself an introvert or an extravert?

I think if someone perceives themselves as extraverted, they tend not to talk in social situations because they’re always afraid they’re talking too much. And people who think they’re introverted try to act talkative to compensate for that. I like talking to people. I like asking questions. So I’m probably an extravert. If I said I was an introvert, many people who know me would think I’m nuts.