Back when Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs came out, Mark Ames penned a remarkably vicious review for the New York Press. At the time, I was only familiar with Klosterman’s work for Spin and Esquire. He seemed, like many of the “ironic” and solipsistic hipsters banging out vapid articles for music magazines, relatively harmless and someone I could easily ignore. I just never understand why he was lionized by some as “an incredibly talented yarn-spinner.”
But now that I’ve had the misfortune of reading one of Klosterman’s books, I can identify greatly with Mark Ames’ sentiments. Klosterman’s new book is Killing Yourself to Live. (And, interestingly enough, Mark Ames has reviewed this one as well.) I assure you that any reasonable and thinking person reading this contretemps of lazy writing and outright stupidity may just harbor suicidal thoughts. This book is one of the dumbest and most vile things I’ve read in several years. One imagines a new noun, “Klosterfuck,” being used to describe the nightmarish and earth-shattering moment that occurs any time Klosterman bangs something into his laptop with all the grace and subtlety of a hulking John Tesh staggering over a keyboard.
The book purports to be a road trip across America, the result of a lengthy Spin assignment that had Klosterman shuttling from town-to-town to ferret out the legacies of dead rock stars, arming himself with a rental car (which he calls his “Tauntan”) and loads of CDs to play along the way. It’s an interesting premise, but the hell of it is that Klosterman is too dumb and too indolent a writer to actually do the legwork. He doesn’t bother to call up the Hotel Chelsea in advance to find out what happened to Room 100 (the room where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen), let alone track down any of the surviving employees who might have had some insight into how the infamous couple lived. Instead, he berates Chelsea manager Stanley Bard for politely telling Klosterman that the Cheslea didn’t want to be involved with Klosterman’s story (perhaps because Klosterman is utterly dumb, ignorant and tactless in his approach, asking the desk clerk point blank if anyone has stayed in Room 100, a room that was long ago turned into an apartment). So what does Klosterman do? Like a small child denied his second scoop of rocky road, he badmouths both Bard and the Chelsea.
This ADD approach to journalism continues as Klosterman heads to West Warwick, Rhode Island to find out about the kind of people who attended the Station, the infamous nightclub that where the Great White tragedy went down. Klosterman talks with a few people, but instead of allowing their statements to tell the story, Klosterman, being the egomaniacal writer that he is, plants remarkably vapid conclusions such as, “To me, that’s what makes the Great White tragedy even sadder than it logically was: One can safely assume that none of the 100 people who died at the Station that night were trying to be cool by watching Great White play 20-year-old songs.” Right, Chuck. It’s not about pursuing the more nuanced notion of how the Station was a nexus point for the West Warwick community and how it will forever be associated with killing 100 people because of Jack Russell’s stage antics. It’s about how “cool” or “not cool” everyone was. Even more remarkable, Klosterman spends more time dwelling upon the cheap cocaine he snorts in a West Warick resident’s pickup.
I suppose by this remarkably myopic perspective, if Klosterman were covering the Iraq conflict, it would be about how genuine a mother looked just after the moment a bomb wiped out her extended family.
If being dumb and having no sense of context weren’t bad enough, Klosterman is also adamantly anti-intellectual, continuously solipsistic and downright irresponsible. Here’s a small sample of highlights:
I have never read The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll never read it, and I don’t even care what the fuck it’s about. (21)
Don’t ever cheat on someone. I’m serious. It’s not worth it. And I’m not saying this because cheating is morally wrong, because some people have a specific version of morality that doesn’t necessarily classify actions as right or wrong. The reason you should never cheat on someone is because you won’t enjoy it. No matter which person you’re with, you’ll always be thinking of the other one. (26)
When I read Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation in 1995, I remember being impressed that she intended to play “Strawberry Fields Forever” if she ultimately slit her wrists in the bathtub, opting for the Beatles instead of her own personal Jesus, Bruce Springsteen. (50)
Americans seem to know what’s funny, but they don’t know why. (59)
Physically, I almost never enjoy the process of exercise, but I feel naturally tougher when I finish. Most important, running lets me eat anything I want, and it allows me to drink every day (if I need to). (64)
I don’t want to die, but I certainly adore the idea of being dead. I know it’s pathetic to enjoy the notion of your friends calling each other to discuss your untimely demise, but I love it. Maybe Spin would dedicate an issue to me. (66)
The events of 9/11 are often compared to the events of a nightmare. This is a surprisingly avvy analogy, because hearing someone’s memories from the morning of 9/11 is not unlike having someone preface a conversation with the words, “I had the weirdest dream last night.” When someone wants to talk about a dream, you can never say, “I don’t care.” You have to care. (84)
You know what’s the best part about driving by yourself? Talk radio. Talk radio offers no genuine insight about anything, but I always feel like I am learning something; I always feel like I suddenly understand all the people I normally can’t relate to at all. (103)
So here is the big question: Is dying good for your career? Cynics always assume that it is, but I’m not so sure anymore. (121)
This last passage will really floor you. Interestingly enough, this skimpy book has an index, but I found it interesting that there was nothing listed for “Bryant, Kobe.”
The single hottest topic on today’s omnipresent AM chatter was the identity of Kobe’s accuser, and whether her name should be withheld by the media; the staple argument, of course, is that her identity must remain hiden because there’s so much social baggage associated with being a rape vitim. This strikes me as a peculiar line of reasoning. Certainly, there is a social stigma that comes with being raped; however, there’s obviously a far greater stigma with being perceived as a rapist. Bryant’s reputation is destroyed forever, regardless of his guilt or innocence in this case. I also can’t fathom why rape shield laws don’t allow the defense to question the alleged victim’s mental condtion. I mean, what if this women is insane? What if she regularly accuses people of rape? How can that not matter in a court of law?
Yes, you read those sentences right. In the Klosterman universe, it’s the bitch’s fault of course. A rape charge is some byproduct of hysteria and a court of law relies upon hearsay and speculation rather than facts to try a case.
If you’ve read any of these statements, and you were as baffled as I was by the half-formed observations (if they can even be styled observations) and the outright inane generalizations here, you’re probably thinking that they came from a high school student or some hapless LiveJournaler.
But the man who penned these puerile sentiments is 33. Not sixteen, not even in his early twenties. We’re talking about a man already well initiated into adulthood.
If this tone here is intended as a sort of detached irony, I don’t buy it. Because irony relies upon an underlying subtext (such as “Gentleman, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room.”). Here, we have extremely crude observations that are quite explicit about their crude meaning. Thus, Klosterman’s innate stupidity must be taken at face value.
Further, one must marvel over Klosterman’s astonishing superficiality, which seems dictated by crude reactions to the pop culture around him. This is not to suggest that pop culture can’t be written about. I’m only arguing that it be written about at some basic level of intelligence, putting an album, for example, into a broader cultural perspective. With Klosterman, we have none of this, save for cheap dichotomies such as “Pot/Creedence” and “Coke/Interpol.”
I’ve kvetched several other places about the McSweeney’s reliance upon pop culture (and specifically, Dave Eggers’) as a crutch. But at least Eggers’ writing is an earnest effort to ape Saul Bellow — for better or worse. And on ocassion (specifically, his story, “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly,” his homage to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in the first Chabon-edited McSweeney’s Thrilling Tales compilation), his work has been about something more than references to 1980s sitcoms and Donald Barthleme homages.
But Klosterman’s work is about nothing.
In fact, it’s safe to say that Klosterman’s anti-intellectual, uninformed and just plain unthinking approach to writing extends well beyond the page. Consider his response to Ames’ initial review:
That was just weird. I had never read the NY Press before, I had never met (or even heard of) the dude who wrote that piece, and the whole thing was just sort of befuddling. I’m sure most people who saw that piece undoubtedly had no idea who I even was! All in all, I guess I didn’t think about it very much. It wasn’t all that different than being criticized on some cokehead’s blog. I mean, if the guy who wrote that article was smart OR talented, he obviously wouldn’t be working for the NY Press.
In other words, although Klosterman has not read the New York Press, he is willing to cast an uninformed opinion that anyone who writes for them is neither smart nor talented. Further, there’s the strange inference that any vitriolic blogger is a cokehead.
Since we’re talking low culture here, if Klosterman can be likened to a cultural icon, I’d compare him with Joel Goodsen, the Tom Cruise character from Risky Business. We all associate that movie with the indelible image of Tom Cruise sliding across a hardwood floor in his underwear: the ultimate symbol of rebellion. But this is not pure rebellion along the lines of James Dean. Let’s face the facts: Joel was an irresponsible asshole. He thinks nothing of resorting to adolescent activity when his mother’s Steuben egg and his father’s Porsche are damaged and tries to cover this up by turning the home into a brothel. (This supports another theory of mine which will have to be discussed at length: Tom Cruise only works when he plays a dickhead. But that will have to wait for another cultural musing.)
But Joel Goodsen (and Tom Cruise) is cool. And so is Klosterman. But the hollow shell that is Joel Goodsen (and Klosterman) remains largely unexamined. In fact, it is embraced.
Of course, Joel Goodsen’s behavior was framed within a satirical context. And he was, after all, both a teenager and a fictional character.
But Klosterman is a grown man and, much to humanity’s great regret, all too real. In a just world, he would be pumping gas somewhere instead of being allowed to write. He is, in short, a moronic manboy who must be stopped.
[RELATED: Dana starts up a valuable service: Serial killer or rock critic?]
© 2005, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.