NONFICTION: A wide-ranging collection of essays that explore villains both real and fake.
Chuck Klosterman might be getting a little bored as the New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, solving people’s moral dilemmas and encouraging good behavior. This new collection of essays is a gleeful and often funny explanation of villainy, both fictional and real. The range is wide, from the Eagles to Batman to Bill Clinton to Ted Bundy to D.B. Cooper to the Oakland Raiders, making the obligatory stop at Hitler.
Consider Batman, a fictional hero, in comparison with Bernhard Goetz, who shot four black teenagers he thought were about to rob him. Both are outlaw vigilantes; Batman skulks around chasing down criminals. The difference in our perception, Klosterman thinks, is that things we condemn in real life are acceptable in fiction “because fiction is often the only way we can comfortably examine the morally obscene.” We don’t want to get into Ted Bundy’s head to understand him because that detachment insults the people he harmed. In the transgressive fiction of Batman, no actual humans are harmed.
A villain is someone who is evil on purpose. He or she — Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” — is someone “who knows the most and cares the least.” One relatively benign example is Karim Abdul Jabbar. He was villainized because he openly disdained reporters’ often asinine questions and he made no pretense of loving basketball: a really tall guy has no other options.
A more sinister figure was O.J. Simpson, acquitted of killing two people. The public found it unseemly that he still sought the spotlight and were outraged at his book “If I Did It,” in which he described the motive and manner of the murders and then coyly pleaded innocence.
Then there are the arrogant villains (who even look creepy) like Julian Assange, who knows what everybody needs and what the always “progressive” future should look like. His WikiLeaks publishes classified material in the conviction that all information should be transparent, no matter what the potentially harmful immediate effect. “He is, in many ways, the most depressive kind of villain: the kind we must agree with in order to stay competitive. The only other option is being trampled.”
We come to the interesting case of Bill Clinton and his inability to keep his pants zipped. In his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he should have been regarded as the villain: the leader of the Free World dallies with an immature subordinate. But Clinton is good-looking and charming and he denied everything affably. The designated bad guy became witchy-looking Linda Tripp, who pretended friendship with Monica while taping her confessions.
And now to Hitler, the Monster always in the middle of the room. But there is nothing new to be said. In the world’s consensus he inhabits his very own “category of radical evil.” He is now not just a historical figure but “predominantly a placeholder for cognitive darkness.” He’s the only devil we’ve got left. But he doesn’t fit Klosterman’s definition. Hitler arguably saw himself not as a villain, but as a savior of humankind from the (largely Jewish) forces of evil.
There you have it, a fast lively tour of villainy by a fizzy writer. In the last chapter he admits to villainy himself; I’ll leave you to find out what he means.
Brigitte Frase is a book critic in Minneapolis.