In a Pop Matters interview Chuck Klosterman says, “It was harder to write fiction, but maybe that was only because I’d never done it before. I can’t remember if writing Fargo Rock City was hard or easy.”
The fact that he’s never written fiction before is painfully, achingly, stupefyingly, annoyingly obvious. First, there is the problem with the adverbs, which I won’t go into again.
To start off Klosterman can’t even answer the question of who is telling this story, one of the main tenets of all fiction, even the most experimental. My best guess, after finishing the book, is that it’s Chuck Klosterman himself. The mystery narrator seems to have all of Klosterman’s patented schtick down. There’s tons of weird lists, parenthetical asides, pop culture references coming at you a mile a minute, lots of repetition to really make his point in case you missed it the first three times. Sounds like Klosterman, right?
Like I said, I’m only guessing that Klosterman is narrating. It’s never made clear. At one point the narrator, who is telling the story of small-town North Dakotans in 1983 and 1984, goes on a little bit about the Pixies. So all we ever really know about the mystery narrator is that he is from the future, and he doesn’t really care about these people too much.
Downtown Owl is mostly told through three characters in alternating chapters: Mitch, a seventeen-year-old mediocre athlete who has no sense of humor and hates everything most notably music (as though Klosterman is shouting “Look, look this character is nothing like me because I love music. See? Totally fiction.); Horace, the most interesting person in the book, a seventy-three-year-old widower who likes to hang out and drink coffee with his friends; and Julia, a twenty-three-year-old first time teacher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
It doesn’t seem like Klosterman cares for his characters because he doesn’t imbue them with much intelligence or emotional depth. Nor does he trust them to tell their own story (hence the odd godlike narrator). For the most part they want nothing and whine a lot. Downtown Owl is a very slice-of-life, so this happened kind of novel. There are no emotional journeys, no conflicts, or tension. A page turner it is not. Oddly, the three main characters never even interact, except when Julia says hi to Mitch in the hall. Two sentences, that’s it. It makes the reader wonder why the author picked these three people to write about.
Reading the book you get the feeling that Klosterman keeps forgetting he’s writing a story set in 1983 and the first months of 1984. Or maybe Owl, with a population of less than a thousand, is just really advanced when it comes to home computers and computer games. It is possible, but still fishy.
Another thing that makes me think he forgot when his novel was set is the math. Klosterman can’t do it and in not doing it brings up a lot of odd questions about his characters. For instance, in 1983 Horace is 73. His wife Alma died in 1973 at the age of 44 after they had been married for 25 years. Nowhere is there any mention of why Horace at the age of 38 (and who would have been considered an odd old bachelor at the age of 38 in 1948) decided it would be a good idea to marry a 19-year-old. But then again this is Owl, North Dakota where teachers routinely sleep with teenage girls without repercussions, so maybe it wasn’t a big deal for Horace to marry someone nearly 20 years his junior.
But still it causes you to stop reading and think, “woah, what the hell is going on here, did I miss something?” That’s never good.
These are all rookie mistakes and if Klosterman ever took a fiction writing class he probably could have avoided them and written a pretty decent book. Or at least a more decent book than Downtown Owl, which is not without its charms. This is what makes it so frustrating.
He does a great job of nailing down the North Dakotaness of North Dakota (which is charming in and of itself). In the last four or five pages, he lets all his hipster bullshit schtick and his overbearing personality fall away and finally gives the characters a chance to tell their own stories. It’s good. However, is it good enough to slog through 260 pages of absolute bullshit and amateurish fiction to get to it? Hell no.
This book makes me really angry. It will sell a lot of copies because it has Chuck Kloserman’s name on it. It will get good reviews by people who do not care about the craft of writing or the beauty of story telling because Chuck Klosterman once wrote something funny back in 2004. Klosterman could scrawl “I will not talk during class” across every single one of the 270 pages and people would think it was a fascinating diatribe on the chilling effect the Republicans have had on the media or a hilarious pop culture take on mainstream media vs. the Internet.
Meanwhile beautiful, moving books like Ethan Canin’s America America or Gina Frangello’s My Sister’s Continent or everything Stuart Dybek has ever written will be ignored.