Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story
Scribner: June 28
As a longtime admirer of Chuck Klosterman’s writing on pop music and culture, it pains me to report that his latest book, Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, is a dismal, shoddy piece of work. The premise is promising: Klosterman sets out on a cross-country road trip to visit all of the sites of rock ’n’ roll’s long, rich history of death. It seems a brilliant idea — Klosterman’s combination of irreverence and curiosity make him the perfect candidate to unseat the holy-pilgrimage seriousness (and pathos) of most writing on rock ’n’ roll tragedy.
It doesn’t take long for the project to turn sour. Here’s the problem: Klosterman is used to skating by on the wit and originality of his own personal world-view; in his last collection, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, his observations on MTV, pornography, video games, and so on, emerged from a perspective that led him to some surprising conclusions. There was a sense of play, of intellectual gamesmanship, that was fresh and engaging. In Killing Yourself, however, he’s become self-reflexive to the point where he can no longer discriminate between what is valuable and what is piffle; it’s all self-narrative. If he’s looking at something, he thinks his reaction to it — how it affects him — automatically matters simply because it’s him, Chuck Klosterman, looking at it. He has become too lazy and uninterested to make any serious effort at thinking or observing and analyzing what a specific site or incident might mean, and falls back on relaying what it means to him, at that moment.
The most devastating element here is the incomprehensible decision to let Klosterman devote much of the book to pseudo-Hornby writhing about the three (!) women with whom he’s currently involved (that is, either sleeping with or wanting to sleep with). Aside from being, at times, downright creepy, it’s both lazy and irrelevant: as smart and funny and interesting as Chuck Klosterman is, I couldn’t really give two shits about his love life. His self-absorption on this count goes so far as to include a chapter-long conversation between the three women and himself that takes place entirely in his head. What’s sad is that he seems to realize this; the book closes with an actual, real-world conversation between the author and one of his female colleagues at Spin, who urges him not to become “the female Elizabeth Wurtzel.” At this point, one tends to agree wholeheartedly with the criticism, and Klosterman’s only retort is to tell her that “her disdain can only be voiced if I do the opposite of what you suggest.” It’s pre-emptive critical damage control. It’s embarrassing.
It is unsettling to see how turning Klosterman loose on such a promising theme brings out his worst instincts as a writer, because his feature pieces for Spin are often brilliant. A perfect example was his reporting on the Rock Cruise, one of those only-in-America phenomena wherein 40-year-old couples pay to hear REO Speedwagon and Styx perform on a boat. It is hard to imagine a riper opportunity for superiority and ridicule, yet Klosterman never condescends to these people — working-class Midwesterners who are paying money to see over-the-hill versions of the two of the most reviled bands in rock history — and in the end lends both the bands and fans an odd kind of dignity. The piece said something interesting, but what? That the middle-aged parents waiting to see REO Speedwagon are in their own way engaged in something just as authentic as the young adults who pack the Bowery Ballroom to see the Killers or Bloc Party, and therefore as deserving of respect? Now that is an almost revolutionary notion, but it is not one you will find between the covers of Killing Yourself. It is frustrating to know that the author is capable of such insights and then to slog through 235 pages of crap that wouldn’t make it onto a Weezer B-side.
Klosterman is most definitely — he prides himself on it, actually — a creature of his age, and in this context Killing Yourself to Live is a telling document. In a sense, this book is the final endpoint of the much-vaunted, now-tired New Journalism, the place where self-absorption takes the final step towards full eradication of observation and analysis. For those of you busy fiddling with your iPods and honing your retro-cool look, the New Journalism of the 1960s and 70s, invented by Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe, apotheosized by Hunter S. Thompson, was an invigorating re-thinking of the whole idea of journalism and the engine of some genuinely great writing. By putting the author at the center of the story, and eschewing traditional ideas of objectivity, the New Journalists uncovered realities that lay outside of the who-what-why-when-where verities of traditional journalism. Fast-forward to Chuck Klosterman 2005, however, and the whole idea seems to have swung so far over as to be hopelessly out of whack. Compare Klosterman to a traditional rock critic like Greil Marcus, who relies on close analysis of the music within a cultural context. Klosterman’s best writing makes Marcus look dim and stuffy, but, as dismally out-of-touch as Marcus now is, he still makes Klosterman seem… irrelevant.
Like all culture, criticism is cyclical. As with so many other cycles, what seemed fresh and biting in the 60s and 70s has become empty gesture. It is well time for the inevitable backlash against this solipsistic place that the innovations of New Journalism have brought us to. With some effort and focus, Chuck Klosterman may still be the man to help push the pendulum back; he’s young, he’s talented, and lurking under the muck are still some interesting questions about rock’n’roll, celebrity, mass media, authenticity, and all the other swirling elements of contemporary popular culture. One can only hope Killing Yourself was just something he needed to get out of his system.