Saturday, June 25, 2005

Voices from the commercial Underground

It's always interesting to sit in the breakroom of a chain bookstore, one that's nestled between a Foleys and a Hallmark in a dilapidated mall in a two-college town. Two-thirds of the staff is currenly enrolled in one of the two universities, the other one-third is graduated and has kids. While my ham and cheese sandwiches are heating up in the microwave, I see a library copy of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs on the table. I assumed it belonged to the music manager - a 40-something woman with a boyfriend and an ecclectic music taste that ranges from the Flaming Lips to Michael Buble - and thought it best to avoid the conversation because of how she tends to go on-and-on-and-on, not because i didn't like the book or love to talk about it. It's one of my personal favorites actually, but I'm sure, she'd give me a reason to say, "no, I've actually never read that one."

It turns out, the book belonged to a part-time employee we just hired a month ago. She's the type you can see getting a day-job because she hated being at home while her kids were at school. You see her and you instinctively think PTA and Bible School leader. I couldn't resist. Instead of reading my copy of Klosterman's latest book, I sat and talked with her about this one. I was intrigued. Why would she have picked it up? More importantly, how did she even know about it? It's not a book most people would actually seek out unless they're looking for that critical view of society and/or embarassing insight about all the American flaws we're exposing our kids to. What's more, she went on various rants about Klosterman's takes on the SIMS and other points that she didn't agree with...her arguments were completely valid and coherent. I was in shock.

After the initial embarrassed blush for my premature judgement of her character, I found myself arguing points with her and reminiscing the good points Klosterman makes with her. It was a good, healthy conversation...in the breakroom of a chain bookstore.

I come home and read the news on my feed reader. This article by Slate, was the first I actually took the time to read. Maybe critique is more the word. Not a book or movie review, but a critique of Chuck Palahniuk and Slate's elite observation that he's sold-out - writing what his audience is asking for rather than what he wants to write about and that his latest novel, Haunted, is more gore than literature. Oh, they praised Fight Club for all sorts of philosophical, 10-letter-word reasons, but, Haunted, is nothing like that they said.

They said Fight Club focussed on the new male - one that is both gruesome and sensitive. Having read both Fight Club and Haunted (and all his others) I can agree that the duality of men - the sex - does exist, but it's not the central point. Chuck P creates extraordinary characters that are really just ordinary people. He brings out that part of our society. As i judged my co-worker in the breakroom this afternoon, most of us judge strangers by their appearances. Most of us wouldn't be able to point-out a serial killer if we were standing in line behind him/her at the grocery store. All of his characters look normal and act normal until they are pushed to their limits and then, he does what any novelist does, he takes their lives one step further, but still in the realm of understanding. We can see his characters knowing this information or having seen this happened to someone else. His characters are believable in that sense. We don't necessarily want to believe it, but we know that real people like his characters exist all around us.

The truth is, maybe Chuck P did sell-out to his audience from the Cult website. Maybe they wanted him to take his characters to a whole new, gruesome level. He did, but still in the classic Chuck P style. The only difference is that what they knew, what they saw, and what they did was still in the realm of what's possible, if only we would allow ourselves to admit the reality in which we live. We're a society that finds cliched fascination with car wrecks and professional-hit murders. In this novel, he just catered to that American obsession.

But, wait...there's more. Chuck P has become a sort of poster-child for the underground, generation X culture. so much so, that he's commercialized. Everytime someone asks me for Fight Club at the bookstore, I roll my eyes. Most just saw the movie or have just had friends recommend the book over the movie and they want to find out for themselves. They might read the book, they might not. Whatever, they won't be back to get any of his others. They'll think they understand everything about the fascination surrounding Chuck P after reading that one book that they'll probably rush to their local coffee shop and start talking about it as if they knew their nose from their ass.

Chuck Klosterman has become the same way. Everyone's reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and then spouting pop culture insights as if they weren't a member of it. Yeah, talk to me when you read his monthly column in Esquire magazine, and/or his other books. Even then, you won't know shit about pop culture or music culture. That's the point these two authors are making in the real underground. They're not necessarily speaking truths, they're speaking their opinion, their views on society and that's it. They're not trying to speak for an entire generation, they're just trying to make some money. What each has to say about society is good...it's not the holy gospel...but it's good and insightful. The problem does not lie with them, it lies in the majority of the population that either disagrees with their sentiments or is trying to make a name for him/herself.

This latter point isn't original. Think of The Postman or the Chronicles of Riddick - the ending of both hinges on the principle that whomever kills the man in charge takes control of the entire empire. That's what this population of reviewers is becoming - to become respected in that field, you have to knock off a giant. Whatever happened to inspiration? or originality. Instead of telling me why someone is wrong, tell me what you think is right.

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