Last night I read Chuck Klosterman’s I Wear the Black Hat, which I thought  would be a good follow up to Radley Balko’s book, since they are both, in their own ways, meditations about evil. And they do make an interesting pairing, but it shouldn’t be a comparison Klosterman welcomes. Balko’s book is just much, much better written. Balko’s book has a through-line. You feel like you ended up in a different place than you started. Klosterman’s book is interesting, but every chapter is like “let’s just consider a different (mostly male) villain.”

Instead of making an argument, he’s just mulling things over. Which, fine, except that he ends the book with a meditation on Hitler. Up until that point, Klosterman has made two interrelated arguments–one, we love in fiction what we’d be repulsed by in real life; and two, the villain is the person who knows the most and cares the least. And then I thought he was making an argument that real life people cannot be perceived of as heroes or villains until they enter a kind of fictive space. In some ways, we have to strip away what we know of them as full people in order to reduce them down to a fictional character we can classify.

But then he’s all, “Well, Hitler is kind of the ultimate villain, but he doesn’t fit my ‘knows the most, cares the least’ formulation.” And I kept waiting for him to say that this is because Hitler hasn’t been successfully fictionalized. The aftermath of what he did is still too real. That’s people’s grandparents who are dead. (Same for Stalin, I’d argue). Hitler can’t be moved comfortably into fictive space where he can be simplified and “villainized” because he doesn’t reduce very well. Yet.

Which isn’t to say that Hitler’s not evil. Just that he’s not a “villain” because he’s not quite distant enough to be comfortably fiction.

But that argument never came! Or at least, didn’t come successfully. So, it gave the whole book this kind of sad undermining of itself at the end.

Also, I think he talks about maybe three women as villains in the whole book. One of them is Sharon Stone’s character from Basic Instinct. And I know, in some sense, he’s writing about villains he identifies with. So, it’s maybe not surprising that so many of them are male. But on the other hand, it also kind of is. He can imagine what he has in common with Kareem Abdul-Jabar but he can’t imagine what he has in common with, say, Hillary Clinton? Or go on at more length about how Sarah Palin operated as a villain?

It’s not noticeable at first, but it starts to get weird after a while. Maybe there is something particularly masculine about villainy, but, if so, he should make that explicit.

Anyway, he’s obviously talented as fuck. But eh.


2 thoughts on “Villains

  1. I have a meditation on Hitler. It deals with the nature of evil generally, but more specifically with the sticky ethical and historical issue of reflexively crediting Hitler with more power than he really possessed (or that any human being could possibly possess). It starts with a question: How many Jews/Roma/gays/etc. did Hitler kill?

    I’d like to see Klosterman’s chapter on ol’ Adolf, if only to see if he went in a similar direction.

  2. No! I also thought he might go in that direction and maybe talk some about why people–especially if we look like the ones who participated and were complicit in the Nazis’ crimes–might have a lot invested in making Hitler somehow uniquely charismatic with the superhuman ability to brainwash people into doing things they otherwise wouldn’t have. But no!

    Still, I would recommend the book if only because it’s an interesting meditation. I just wouldn’t read it paired with Balko’s book, is all, because it will leave you wishing Klosterman had pushed a little harder in his thinking.

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