Klosterman’s The 90’s: A Book. A Word Salad.


“What’s historically distinctive about the [Generation] X era is the overwhelming equivocation toward its own marginalization,” Chuck Klosterman writes in his book The 90’s: A Book. We understand Klosterman’s point, but we would write it another way. We would write that the art of equivocation may have led to Generation X’s marginalization. As evidence of this, Klosterman then writes, “The things uninformed people said about who Gen Xers supposedly were often felt reductionist and flawed, but still worthy of examination and not entirely wrong.” 

No one in my inner circle said anything bold in the 90’s. There were exceptions of course. We called them the “say anything” crowd, because they’d say anything. The rest of us were either scared, or conditioned, to qualify, equivocate, or obfuscate the meaning of everything we said to try to jam our thoughts into every square hole before us. We edited our thoughts in real time, so that no one could accuse us of generalizing. I talked to other generations, and they didn’t worry about generalizing, stereotyping, or any other accusation our crowd could dream up. They said bold things, and they could back them up, some of the times. Some of their opinions were controversial, and some of them weren’t. Some of their opinions were wrong, and some of them weren’t. They didn’t care. They weren’t afraid to share. They’d say anything. How do they get away with that, we wondered.  

Someone accused me of generalizing once, as if it were the ultimate condemnation of my assessment. By that time, we were all sick of the accusation. Being so careful became tedious after a while. I turned to my accuser and said, “I am generalizing, because I find this to be generally true.” She was shocked, presumably because no one ever fought back against her charge. Had she pressed me, I would’ve added, ‘When we generalize, we say things we believe are generally true. If something is true 50.0001% of the time, it is generally true, in general, and that is a generalization.’ “There are no absolutes,” the absolutes crowd say. We might try to argue that line, but the idea they loft is because something is not 100% true 100% of the time, then we should not discuss it until we qualify it to make considerations for the 49.9999% times it might not be true. How does anyone think, talk, or formulate conversation if they’re worried that some statement doesn’t account for the 23.1% of the population to which it doesn’t apply? You don’t. You sit back, in marginalized and intimidated corners to allow the unintimidated to continue unencumbered. The fear of condemnation leads us to say things like, “reductionist and flawed, but still worthy of examination and not entirely wrong.” We enjoyed saying such things initially, as it led to some level of “intellectual status”, but we eventually discovered how discombobulating and tedious it could become.      

2) “The most compelling aspect of The Gen X Reader is not what the writers got right or wrong, but the intensity of their search for meaning,” Chuck Klosterman writes of Douglas Rushkoff’s compilation of essays Gen X Reader (an anthology devoted to dissecting Douglas Copeland’s book Generation X). 

If all theory is autobiography, and all analysis is self-analysis, Klosterman reveals his raison d’etre in that sentence. If he did this to himself, in a public park, in the state of Alabama, they would probably ring him up on at least a half-dozen misdemeanors. 

3) “[The book Gen X Reader is] a fossilized example of how understanding the present cannot be achieved until the present has become the past,” Klosterman further writes. 

What? 

He writes, “Times, change, because that’s what they do.”  

In another space, on another subject, Klosterman asks, “Now … were these assessments accurate?” He answers: (Yes.) (No.) (Sometimes.)” 

The first thing that comes to mind when reading these particular lines is, the only person who might be more exhausted in a conversation with Chuck Klosterman, other than the audience to his conversation, is Chuck Klosterman himself. Those unfamiliar with Klosterman’s style might think he is trying to add words to fluff his word count, or they might think he’s trying too hard to be inclusive or sound intelligent. Those of us who read his books, listen to his podcast, and/or watch interviews with him know this is Chuck Klosterman. It’s the way he writes, and it’s the way he talks.  

I tried to come up with an assessment of these particular elements of Klosterman’s writing. “Word Salad,” I whispered. What’s a word salad? Wikipedia defines word salad thusly: “A word salad, or schizophasia, is a “confused or unintelligible mixture of seemingly random words and phrases”, most often used to describe a symptom of a neurological or mental disorder.” This is not Chuck Klosterman in total. He is very intelligent and insightful, but he has moments.

I recommend just about every book he has authored. Klosterman’s writing is not a word salad in this sense, but some of his sentences contain iceberg lettuce. I love iceberg lettuce. I always have. I love it as much as I do Chuck Klosterman’s work. After decades of eating the leaves, I found out that iceberg lettuce has little nutritional value. It provides vitamin A and K, and some fiber, and it has a high-water count, but compared to other lettuce leaves it is very low in nutritional value. 

Many Klosterman essays have living lettuce, oak leaf lettuce, and other leaves with nutrients, but he adds black olives. “You can never have too many black olives,” his writing says. Yes, we can. Then he adds far too much cheese, a half-pound of bacon bits, and everyone knows you don’t need that many cucumbers and croutons to make a salad, but Klosterman wants to make sure readers get value for their money.     

4) One interesting insight Klosterman writes that aligns with thoughts I’ve explored is: “[Older generations] perceive the updated versions of themselves as either softer or lazier (or both). These categorizations tend to be accurate. But that’s positive. That’s progress. If a society improves, the experience of growing up in that society should be less taxing and more comfortable; if technology advances and efficiency increases, emerging generations should rationally expect to work less. If new kids aren’t soft and lazy, something has gone wrong.” 

For most of my life I wanted others to consider me weird, strange, or just plain different. Whatever I achieved in this regard, it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. I wanted it all. I never realized what an enviable position this was, and I had no idea that it was an offshoot of my dad’s ability (financially and otherwise) that led me to a varying degree of certitude that I belong. My dad grew up in a location just south of the “other side” of the tracks. He grew up, and spent the entirety of his adulthood, trying to fit in. A portion of my desire to engage the minds of the weird, so that I might become one, could have been borne through rebellion to my dad’s obsessive desire to have others consider he and his son’s normal, but I now think he laid a foundation of norms at my feet by raising me in a normal climate that I desperately tried to escape. 

5) Klosterman also has a unique gift for making seemingly irrelevant (to me anyway) events in history cultural touchstones that either influenced, changed, or revolutionized the culture. Klosterman writes that Nelson Mandela going from jail to the Nobel Peace Prize and then to the presidency of South Africa as “the most momentous global event of the nineties.” Klosterman lists the cultural influence as initiating the art of the conspiracy theory, as conspiracy theories suggested Mandela died in a prison cell. I don’t know if Klosterman ran around in different circles, or if he is attempting to rewrite his past and assign his thoughts greater significance, but I don’t know anyone, personally, who ever talked about Nelson Mandela in the 90’s.  

6) Klosterman is a few years younger than me, and we share some similarities in our background, so when he writes what he considers the cultural touchstones of the last sixty years, I’m intimately familiar with almost everything he discusses save for one: Reality Bites. I was that Blockbuster guy we now see in retrospective videos of a guy who stood in their aisles far, FAR too often, in the 90’s, trying to find something unique and entertaining, but I never selected Reality Bites. To read Klosterman, the idea that someone who paid a ton of attention to the culture, through entertainment venues, the idea that a man my age never saw this movie is his equivalent of an American never hearing the name Babe Ruth. This isn’t the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last he writes of this movie, as he believes it either captured the narrative of the 90’s in America, better than any other movie, or drove it. I wouldn’t know, because I never saw it.  

Regardless what I’ve said above, I respect Mr. Chuck Klosterman. I think he’s an excellent writer, and a challenging intellect. When one of his books come out, I’m one of the first in the intangible line to pick it up. If anyone thinks I’m too negative, or cynical, I am. Whenever my friends and I would walk out of a quality movie, we would dissect it, and we were always negative and cynical. We would criticize the acting, the plot, elements of the dialogue, and anything else we could think up. If the movie just sucked, we didn’t waste any more of our lives on it. We just said, “Well, that sucked!” The great ones were the ones we picked apart. Our conversations went something like this: “I hated it when he did that!” “Oh, I know it. What about that time he did this?” “Great movie though.” “Yeah, it was.”  

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