Books

It’s Never Been Less Fashionable to Be Contrarian, but Chuck Klosterman Is Still Finding a Way

The author of But What if We’re Wrong? is back with a fresh batch of provocations.

Klosterman photoshopped upside-down speaking at a mic
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images.

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For a writer as rooted in cultural ephemera as Chuck Klosterman is, it must be disorienting to go out of fashion. Once, he was a hipster savant. Beginning as a music critic for such publications as Spin in the early 2000s, Klosterman went on to more general pop cultural criticism (collected in 2003’s influential Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs), a stint as the Ethicist columnist for the New York Times Magazine, and a bestselling book of what can only be called speculative pop epistemology, 2016’s But What if We’re Wrong?

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Anything in fashion, however, must inevitably to go out. Fortunately for Klosterman, the pop culture he cut his teeth on flourished in a decade characterized by, as he writes in his new book The Nineties, “the pervasion of self-constructed, self-aware apathy.” So he can simply not care. Klosterman remarks that the much-deplored indifference of Generation X has “one social upside: Self-righteous outrage was not considered cool, in an era when coolness counted for almost everything.” Compared with the average cultural critic today, whose sensibility was likely shaped by ardent online fandoms and obsessions, Klosterman is cool, even detached. You can find that off-putting, or you can find it (as I do) a refreshing change.

The Nineties isn’t nostalgic—not exactly, at least, since nostalgia implies a voiced dissatisfaction with the present, and Klosterman is too shrewd to waste his time on that. The closest he comes is the book’s first footnote, which reads, “Transparency requires me to admit a few things here, if only to aid those primarily reading this book in order to locate its biases: I was born in 1972. I’m a white heterosexual cis male. I was economically upper-lower-class in 1990, middle-middle-class in 1999, and am lower-upper-class as I type this sentence.” This aside is a little masterpiece, a sarcastic genuflect, down to the excessively detailed breakdown of Klosterman’s class, an identity marker that the people who care about the other identity markers listed often prefer not to take into consideration. He doesn’t object to complying with this custom, but he’s going to sigh grudgingly as he does so, like an 8-year-old being forced to write a thank-you note.

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That passage may be the most Gen X thing in a book deeply enmeshed in resurrecting the lost mentality of Klosterman’s youth. The Nineties is more a collection of salvaged items than a narrative or an argument. It makes no pretense to comprehensiveness. It’s an eccentric buffet, from which you are free to savor what appeals to you most, and if you aren’t served what you were looking for, well then you’ve come to the wrong kitchen. Chapters take up such obvious topics as Bill Clinton’s presidency, Seinfeld, the Columbine shootings, Titanic (“the single most interesting thing about Titanic is its total commitment to expressing nothing that could be construed as interesting, now or then”), and of course, Nirvana. Klosterman explains how VHS technology and the video rental stores it spawned led to the decade’s efflorescence of independent filmmaking, movies whose primary frame of reference tended to be other movies, epitomized in the work of Quentin Tarantino. Then he moves on to something about the NCAA tournaments, which I confess was pure gibberish to me, so I skipped ahead to a particularly astute chapter about the slow incorporation of the internet into the culture at large. Given that Klosterman regards TV—specifically network TV—as the dominant cultural force of the time, the resemblance to old-school channel-surfing is surely intended.

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“Part of the complexity of living through history,” Klosterman writes, “is the process of explaining things about the past that you never explained to yourself. So many temporary realities, distantly viewed in the rearview mirror, will appear ridiculous to any person who wasn’t there.” This is by far the most intriguing facet of this book, because who really needs another reflection on the significance of Kurt Cobain and alt culture’s now-quaint-seeming dread of selling out? Klosterman wants to explain what it felt like to live as an adult in a form of reality that no longer exists, the wholly analog world, as it gave way to a new form of reality, the digital world. It’s strange to possess “total recall of both the previous world and the world that came next.” Yet “total recall” isn’t actually possible because our memories of the past are constantly being overwritten by our present perspective. It requires a strenuous exercise of memory, research, and imagination to recall the ’90s accurately.

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Is that a project worth attempting? Klosterman argues, persuasively, that it is, because the transformation was so profound. At the same time, it can only be reflected in seemingly trivial fragments. To expand on his argument: Unlike, say, the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society (the subject of Victorian writers like Thomas Hardy), this was not a dramatic material change. I can remember an afternoon in early 2001, as I was walking along West 44th St. in Manhattan to the offices of the web publication where I worked. I suddenly realized that almost everyone around me now used email routinely as part of their work lives. They opened a web browser at least daily, possibly hourly, to check the news or to read and post in forums. Social media hadn’t emerged yet, but the Internet had become a “place” in the minds of some critical mass of the populace. There was a web of digital connection that had become so dense it was like an overlay beneath the surface of the visible world, a new layer added to the old reality. You couldn’t see it or touch it, but it was always there and would be from that point onward.

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I think of this as an important moment when my understanding changed significantly, but I was also just coming back from lunch to an office where I behaved pretty much as usual afterward. Furthermore, it was an entirely solitary experience, unlike, say, World War II or Woodstock. Perhaps it isn’t meaningful to anyone but me, although I suspect that many people my age and Klosterman’s had similar isolated epiphanies, weird conflations of the epochal and the mundane.

Trying to recapture in words an experience that is gone forever, as well as the sensation of it slipping away, is typically a novelist’s remit, whether the seeker is Proust, with his famous memory-triggering madeleine, or Virginia Woolf, recounting how “on or about December 1910, human character changed.” Klosterman does write fiction, but it’s hard to imagine a way to effectively dramatize his exploration of the peculiar shifts in our relationship to, say, the telephone. While people now worry about being addicted to their iPhones, he observes, landlines once dominated us even more. “If you needed to take an important call, you just had to sit in the living room and wait for it. There was no other option. If you didn’t know where someone was, you had to wait until that person wanted to be found.” If you made plans with someone over the phone, they could not be changed once you left the house. “Yet within these fascistic limitations, the machine itself somehow mattered less. It was an appliance, not that different from the dishwasher.” Now, it is an obsession, replaced at considerable expense every couple of years.

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Klosterman loves a paradox, and this is a good one, but he has little interest in following it to a conclusion that weighs in on whether this transformation was good or bad. (How did anyone so seemingly uncompelled by morality become the Ethicist?) I took his tolerant bemusement toward the utopian prophecies of the internet’s early boosters as a corrective to my own long grudge against the mulishly starry-eyed people who surrounded me in the Bay Area of the 1990s. “The cult of the internet was evangelical in its belief that this technology was not just positive but unassailable and limitless,” Klosterman writes, because they assumed that the “everyone” who would, inevitably, come to the internet would see it and use it the way that they—a pack of aging but still idealistic hippies—did. Technology can change some things profoundly, as Napster transformed young people’s notions of the monetary value of music. But it can’t, it seems, change others, like the human propensity for mischief and malevolence.

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The Nineties reminded me of the days when I explained to nervous people that entering your credit card number into a merchant’s website wasn’t any riskier than giving it to the person at the other end of the same merchant’s 800 number—I was wrong about that, too, just not right away. Klosterman points out that doxxing, a cardinal crime in the digital age, follows a long period when most people with telephones had no problem with their name, address, and telephone number being printed in a book that was “distributed to millions of people living within driving distance of your front door.” We now take it for granted that this particular breach between our material and our online identities is a serious violation of an essentially new form of privacy, but once upon a time “most Americans doxed themselves.”

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For Klosterman, the defining film of the ’90s was The Matrix, which is ostensibly about a computer-simulated reality, but which, he argues, is really about TV. To understand the most preposterous beliefs of the ’90s, such as the widespread skepticism that greeted Anita Hill’s supremely credible testimony at Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, it helps to bear in mind not just the entrenched sexism Hill faced but also “the power of television to shape rationality through irrational means.” Everything viewed on a TV screen becomes a TV show, Klosterman insists, and that’s how Americans experienced the hearings. “Forty years of network programming had trained people to associate the performance of emotion with the essentialism of truth, and Thomas had been much more emotional than Hill. He seemed angry, sad, confused, and uncompromising. She just made a good argument, which—on television—is never enough.”

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Three decades later, Brett Kavanaugh drew from the same playbook at his confirmation hearing, with the histrionics turned up to 11 in response to a victim whose testimony was itself more dramatic and who had suffered a greater violation. But the Kavanaugh hearings took place in a context of near-total political polarization. Credibility was not even really an issue, as the prevailing model is no longer TV but sports. All that matters now in deciding which individual you believe is whether or not they’re on your team.

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Klosterman makes the startling argument that the person responsible for this state of affairs could be Ross Perot, who ran as a third-party candidate in the presidential election of 1992. In one of his beloved historical counterfactuals, Klosterman suggests that without Perot “nipping at his heels,” George H.W. Bush might have beaten Clinton and presided over a centrist Republican administration that would have sidelined Newt Gingrich, a key political architect of the current regime of knee-jerk partisan rancor. It’s a wacky notion, and out of character coming from Klosterman, whom you’d expect to zero in on the entertainment-driven ethos of talk radio and cable news. But it’s fun to think about, a scenario I enjoyed kicking around. What would the ’90s have been without Clinton? This theory is also completely surprising, an increasingly rare phenomenon in cultural criticism at a time when everyone seems to say pretty much what you expect them to say. For this reader, at least, that will never go out of style.