If Batman were real and other musings on villainy


Book-wise, Chuck Klosterman is probably best known for Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his 2003 collection of pop culture essays, or perhaps Killing Yourself to Live, his look at the history of glam rock. More recently, he’s made waves as The Ethicist for the New York Times, a post that comes with its very own silhouette drawing.

Klosterman feels like — and I suspect probably is? — one of those writers that people either adore or really dislike. His style of nonfiction is almost manic, a word-vomit of references and opinions and free-association insights. In a way, CK is like the coked-up friend at the party (coke is what the elderly did before molly, kids), spouting hypotheses on the philosophical difference between Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, or the reason the Miami Heat sucked so hard in 2007. He’s got a theory for every topic–though takes care to note that he’s “never had an idea that a hundred other people didn’t have before me.” For me, the kind of person who daydreams curricula for a hypothetical PhD in Reality Television, the Klosterman brand of mania is perfect. But I can understand why not everyone would love it. I guess.

CK’s nascent tour as The Ethicist seems to have come to bear in I Wear the Black Hat, his latest nonfiction, which explores the culture of villainy, and pokes holes in glossed-over hypocrisies about what makes someone laudable versus despicable. Perhaps so many letters seeking guidance on everyday ethics made the topic unavoidable, but where IWTBA differs from Klosterman’s NYT work is in whose ethics it reflects. The column is about what people do (or, in the case of moral negligence, what they don’t do) and how those actions or inactions reflect on their character. I Wear The Black Hat is about what people feel about others‘ actions, and how those feelings/perspectives reflect on our collective character. While I’m a big fan of CK-as-Ethicist (I know not everyone is, but…haters gonna hate) the nuance of IWTBH makes it a more interesting exploration.

Through a lot of detailed examples — and a great many tangents and diatribes — Klosterman seems interested in pointing out how arbitrary our villains tend to be and, moreover, how our perspective on what makes someone a “bad person” tends to change, either with age or generation or pop culture ethos. The most concise example of the theme (and probably the most polarizing among nerds) is CK’s consideration of Star Wars. When you’re a child, he argues, you tend to root for — and identify most with — Luke Skywalker, who is inarguably virtuous, and whose view of good versus evil is clear-cut, almost to the point of oversimplification. As you grow older, you come to appreciate Han Solo, who is fundamentally good but also unquestionably flawed (and, if I may interject my own opinion, has the better best friend). And finally, once you hit adulthood — perhaps with a closet full of skeleton-shaped flaws and regrets of your own — you begin to empathize with Darth Vader, who is ultimately a remorseful old white man hiding in the sartorial embodiment of evil. The question CK seems to be exploring is – why does your opinion change?

He uses other, perhaps more controversial (among non-nerds) examples, like a comparison of the 9/11 hijackers to D.B. Cooper, a gentlemanly fellow who in 1971 hijacked a plane, demanded $200,000 and some parachutes, got them, and proceeded to jump from the plane and never be heard from again. Klosterman’s point here — simplified — is that in the case of Sept. 11, the hijackers were dubbed cowards and absolute villains, while Cooper enjoyed a modest cult following and became for some almost a folk hero. (I feel compelled to point out that Cooper didn’t fly his plane into any buildings.) Other essays touch on Bill Clinton, Hitler, Mohammad Ali, Andrew Dice Clay, the Oakland Raiders, and Batman.

I Wear the Black Hat is on par with CK’s past nonfiction, if not even more linguistically all over the place. The book  feels wanting for organization — not every tangent leads somewhere, so the experience is sometimes like navigating a maze — but even that seems somehow appropriate, like getting a true glimpse into Klosterman’s brain.

Without even getting into his fiction — my review of The Visible Man, btdubbs — I still find Klosterman’s writing to be both refreshing and unique. Grappling with my love of both news and nonsense, I can appreciate anyone who bothers to connect the two, or uses the latter to draw conclusions about who we are as a society — even if those conclusions are overworked, or controversial, or obnoxious. If I have to live in a world obsessed with Taylor Swift, I want at least one guy out there hypothesizing on why:

“People who liked Taylor Swift’s music reverse-engineered a scenario in which they could appreciate her for non-musical reasons; two years later, different people who loathed that construction had to find a way to preexplain why they weren’t going to enjoy her material (so they infused their prefab distaste of her persona back into her work).”

So yeah. He’s great. Perhaps I Wear the Black HatΒ isn’t Klosterman’s best, but it’s fun and zany and provocative. Plus now his silhouette has a hat.


TITLE: I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
AUTHOR: Chuck Klosterman
PAGES: 224 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Eating the Dinosaur, Downtown Owl
SORTA LIKE: David Sedaris and David Foster Wallace get high together and write about pop culture
FIRST LINE: “What is the most villainous move on the market?”

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