Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
By Chuck Klosterman
All Posts Contain Spoilers
Some books are written just for you.
You know what I mean, right? Something similar happens between people. There are miracles of chemistry: you meet someone, and both of you experience an instant and reciprocated affinity. It is as though you were both designed with the other in mind, all the pieces match up.
The same thing can happen with books. There are books out there, like people, which are just perfect for you. They were written because there are other people like you, who think like you and care about the other things you care about, and now you’ve found each other and it’s going to be fun. Maybe moving, maybe life-changing, but definitely fun.
When I learned that Chuck Klosterman, the morbid, mordant culture critic, had written a book about villainy, I knew without reading it that I loved it. I’ve always liked Klosterman – he’s dark, and funny, and broadly interested in how the world works, how all the pieces of culture fit together, what they mean synthetically.
And I love villainy. I love villains, bad guys, wickedness and evil – I’ve been interested in them all my life. In my experience, this is either something you get or you don’t: some people orient towards heroes, some towards villains. We two sides will not understand each other; I cannot explain why I think that villainy is more interesting, and more important, than goodness. I only know that it is.
‘I Wear the Black Hat‘ is Chuck Klosterman’s loose meditation on villains in culture, on what makes someone seem villainous, on what makes some villains likable and some not, on the factors which inform villainy: context, intention, success (the full title is ‘I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)‘). It is arranged into short chapters, essays really, which do not share content but which share structure and orientation. It’s a quick read, and an easy one, but it’s also a fucking blast.
Klosterman has a lot to recommend him: as I mentioned, he’s funny, but he’s also brave, probably honest, and has a viewpoint which is recognizably his own. He has a real knack for persuasively connecting things which you had not thought to connect, and the facility of his comparisons does not leave you with the impression (which it might easily have done) that he has not thought deeply about them. Take, for example, his essay ‘Crime and Punishment (Or the Lack Thereof)’, which begins thus:
‘It’s unfair to write this, but I’m going to do it anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and O. J. Simpson have a lot in common. We don’t normally lump them together, because certain key contrasts are tricky – for example, one man is a Muslim intellectual and the other more or less decapitated his ex-wife. This is more than a significant detail.’ (p. 191)
The essay which follows this (and I challenge anyone even vaguely curious about American culture to read that opening and then walk away from the rest of the essay) contains two of the more interesting points about O. J. Simpson that I’ve ever read:
- That if, in fact, O. J. were innocent (which Klosterman emphatically does not believe he was) than his post-acquittal public life was the only reasonable and honorable path open to him (up to the publication of ‘If I Did It’, that is).
- That “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved. But Simpson does not allow for uninvolvement. He exceeds the acceptable level of self-directed notoriety and changes the polarity of the event; by writing this book [‘If I Did It’], he makes it seem like the worst part of Brown and Goldman’s murder was what happened to him…” (p. 204)
That kind of lucid and yet strange analysis is exactly what characterizes Klosterman’s writing, but here it meets subject matter which sorely needs it.
People rarely examine villainy merely to understand it. Klosterman isn’t interested in condemning the subjects of his essays (who include Kim Dotcom, LeBron James, Andrew Dice Clay, Batman, and Hitler); when he feels that they deserve condemnation, he merely states that they have got it. He’s not moralizing; he’s interested in figuring out why we react to different people the way that we do. He even manages to provide a definition of villainy which is pithy, novel, and servicable:
‘In any situation, the villain is the person who knows the most but cares the least.’ (p. 14)
That’s Klosterman at his best: short, thought-provoking, and quotable. I don’t always agree with his little epigrams, but I can’t ever dismiss them, and sometimes they hit me upside the head with their novelty and insight. Take my single favorite quote from the book (from his entire ouvre, probably):
‘Love is significantly less crazy than lust. Love is a mildly irrational combination of complex feelings; lust is a totally irrational experience that ignores complexity on purpose.’ (p. 128) (This is from the essay on Bill Clinton and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the movie Basic Instinct, Ted Bundy, and Wilt Chamberlain. Really.).
For my money, there is more wisdom in that little line than in all of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whether it is correct or not. And the kicker is, I can’t tell: I’ve been thinking about it for days, and I don’t know whether or not I agree.
That’s the great joy of reading Chuck Klosterman: you get to see the whole world sparkle with a totally new perspective, one only slightly askew from your own but which nevertheless makes an enormous difference. That’s what good culture critics do, really – they show you the same old objects stripped of their familiarity. And ‘I Wear the Black Hat‘ is good cultural criticism: it will show you the same old villains, but with a whole new sparkle.