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Klosterman keeps it short - ‘Raised in Captivity’

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Few writers today have been working the cultural criticism beat as long and as successfully as Chuck Klosterman. To many, his is THE voice when it comes to pop analysis and contextualization. But while his latest book might explore some of those same ideas, it does so through a different literary lens.

“Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction” (Penguin, $26) offers the same sort of quick-hit cleverness that permeates Klosterman’s nonfiction, but via a delivery medium of short fiction. Flash fiction, really – none of the 34 pieces that make up this collection is more than a handful of pages and some are considerably shorter.

The book’s subtitle is an accurate one – the tales contained within are brief, fictionalized explorations of the same ideas and hypotheticals that feature prominently in Klosterman’s nonfiction work. They are strange and offbeat, small and skewed glimpses of the zeitgeist through weird-colored glasses – think “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” only in a much bigger hurry. And while they vary in length, style and tone, all of them ring loudly with the author’s distinctive voice.

I think the best bet is to stroll through a handful of personal highlights, although the reality is that with this book – even more so than most short fiction collections – your mileage will definitely vary.

The collection’s titular story leads things off. An unnamed man is sitting in first class on a plane, an experience he is more or less enjoying until he goes to the restroom and discovers a puma. He’s left to confront the meaning of this unlikely event. It’s a perfect kickoff to the proceedings, the sort of bizarre “what if?” scenario in which Klosterman loves to dabble.

“Execute Action” is a sports story – or at least sports-adjacent. It’s a man telling a bizarre tale of his high school football team and the non-coach coach who used philosophy and metaphysics to build an entire offense around a single strange play. When properly executed, it would gain precisely 2.7 yards – and so it was the only play the team ran. Throw in some contextual hints toward exceptionalism and you’ve got another weird winner.

One of my absolute favorites of the bunch is “The Secret,” in which a man is recruited into a shadowy government organization that is devoted solely to investigating a shift in the laws of probability – coin flips aren’t 50/50 propositions anymore and no one knows why, but the fate of the universe as we know it may rest on finding out.

“Blizzard of Summer” sees an obscure band find unexpected success when one of their tracks inexplicably becomes wildly popular in white supremacist circles. In “Tricks Aren’t Illusions,” two friends and former magicians come together again when one is in trouble that he’s not willing to discuss. “Trial and Error” follows a woman as she tries to decide whether or not to take drastic action to turn her life around.

In “What About the Children,” a trio of siblings invest their time and efforts into realizing the dream of the younger brother to become a cult leader. “Not That Kind of Person” features a woman looking to have her husband killed but is appalled by the assassin’s proposed method.

There’s the guy who needs a lawyer to fight an assault charge that stems from him being just a little bit rabid. There’s a look at potential new methods for recruiting and grooming TV talking heads. There’s an alternate history about a never-was college basketball dynasty out of MIT. There are men and women dealing with deep fakes and fake wokeness.

Pure Klosterman, all of it.

While in some ways these stories are all over the map, there are certain qualities shared by every offering in “Raised in Captivity.” Each of them is shot through with cleverness and an element of the absurd, capturing the unique inquisitiveness that is a Klosterman hallmark. There’s an ironic detachment throughout the collection, a sense of remove that comes through even when – perhaps ESPECIALLY when – a narrative is unfolding in the first person.

That said, in a collection this size, there’s bound to be some degree of variance in quality. And the truth is that not all of these stories are home runs; some suffer due to Klosterman’s tendency toward abrupt endings, others never quite get sufficient room for their ideas to flower. But even the relative misfires are entertaining despite whatever flaws they might have. He’s throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks, a kitchen sink approach that is enjoyable even when less successful.

“Raised in Captivity” is a fun, fast-moving collection of quick hits. No one looks at the world quite like Chuck Klosterman does; for him to turn that vision in a slightly different direction is a welcome change. Shining that perspective through the prism of fiction makes for a grand and strange good time. There’s wisdom and a surprising amount of pathos as well.

As always, Klosterman keeps it weird – and we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 July 2019 19:57

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