Thursday, 18 February 2010

Chuck Klosterman: Flawed Genius

There may be a day in the near future when you find yourself in a conversation about this book, and someone will ask you what the story is really about, beyond the rudimentary narrative of a cross-country death trip based on a magazine article. And it's very likely you will say, "well, the larger thesis is somewhat underdeveloped, but there is this point early in the story where he takes a woman to Ithaca for no real reason, and it initially seems innocuous, but - as you keep reading - you sort of see how this behaviour is a self-perpetuating problem that keeps reappearing over and over again." In all probability, you will also complain about the author's reliance on self-indulgent, postmodern self-awareness, which will prompt the person you're conversing with to criticize the influence of Dave Eggers on the memoir-writing genre. Then your cell phone will ring, and you will agree to meet someone for brunch. -Chuck Klosterman

I generally hate reading books. This may come as a surprise to some, especially considering that more than three quarters of a PhD basically consists of reading books in order to ascertain where your argument fits into the grand scheme of academia. I rarely, if ever, read for pleasure. Reading books to me is a fact finding mission to satisfy my insatiable quest for knowledge. That’s why I almost exclusively read non fiction. If I want to be captured in another world, I’ll turn to my ever growing lists of television series. TV acts as my escape pod, much like books do for most of my contemporaries. I never understand why people think books are an escape. Reading seems like work to me, which is incredibly tiresome.

I highlight this point to illustrate the fact that what I’m about to do is so rare. Last night I was reading a book, which I am currently less than halfway through and I thought: ‘this is the best book I have ever read. I have to write a blog about this to tell everybody how extraordinary this is.' High praise indeed from a guy who hates reading books. A guy who was made to read every morning before school by his parents (both teachers) and would actually spend half the time looking at the clock praying for it all to end.

This very special book is called Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, and it is a kind of a strange memoir. Written by magazine feature writer and pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman, the plot is summarised below by someone who is better at summarizing these things than I am.

For 6,557 miles, Chuck Klosterman thought about dying. He drove a rental car from New York to Rhode Island to Georgia to Mississippi to Iowa to Minneapolis to Fargo to Seattle, and he chased death and rock 'n' roll all the way. Within the span of twenty-one days, Chuck had three relationships end -- one by choice, one by chance, and one by exhaustion. He snorted cocaine in a graveyard. He walked a half-mile through a bean field. A man in Dickinson, North Dakota, explained to him why we have fewer windmills than we used to. He listened to the KISS solo albums and the Rod Stewart box set. At one point, poisonous snakes became involved. The road is hard. From the Chelsea Hotel to the swampland where Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane went down to the site where Kurt Cobain blew his head off, Chuck explored every brand of rock star demise. He wanted to know why the greatest career move any musician can make is to stop breathing...and what this means for the rest of us.


The outline above would have you believe that this is a strange study about why some rock stars meet their maker early and their lives are cut short. This is certainly what I was expecting. Except it isn’t about that at all. Sure Klosterman visits these places, but the book is about Chuck, not the journey and certainly not the destinations.

This is the kind of narcissistic writing that I love and everybody else hates. The journey to these macabre places really just forms the basis of an excuse for Klosterman to wax lyrical about his thoughts on the world and his place within it, with plenty of pop culture references along the way. You see, Chuck is in love with not one, but three women all for different reasons. Why is he in love with three different women? I think at this point, that he is the kind of guy who confuses love for lust or companionship. Although he has different answers. I am not sure I entirely agree with him.

We all have the potential to fall in love a thousand times in our lifetime. It's easy. The first girl I ever loved was someone I knew in sixth grade. Her name was Missy; we talked about horses. The last girl I love will be someone I haven't even met yet, probably. They all count. But there are certain people you love who do something else; they define how you classify what love is supposed to feel like. These are the most important people in your life, and you'll meet maybe four or five of these people over the span of 80 years. But there's still one more tier to all this; there is always one person who you love who becomes that definition. It usually happens retrospectively, but it always happens eventually. This is the person who unknowingly sets the template for what you will always love about other people, even if some of those lovable qualities are self-destructive and unreasonable. You will remember having conversations with this person that never actually happened. You will recall sexual trysts with this person that never technically occurred. This is because the individual who embodies your personal definition of love does not really exist. The person is real, and the feelings are real--but you create the context. And context is everything. The person who defines your understanding of love is not inherently different than anyone else, and they're often just the person you happen to meet the first time you really, really want to love someone. But that person still wins. They win, and you lose. Because for the rest of your life, they will control how you feel about everyone else.

I may not agree, but damn look at how that passage is written. It is evocative, yet simple and entirely relatable. Part of the genius of this book is how Klosterman is completely inept with these women, unable to convey his own feelings to them in his life, but if they ever read the book which was published several months after these events transpired I would think they would be able to understand him almost immediately. I love this contradiction.

I first heard of Klosterman a few months back. He’s a favourite writer of my favourite pop culture contributors at The AV Club website. It is easy to see why: they all have uncanny levels of intelligence, a witty pop culture vernacular, but are all uncompromisingly human in the way they write. Their writing is what this blog aspires to be.

I was on a Billy Joel kick about six weeks ago (the guy is an underrated genius) and I dug through The AV Club archives to find a feature article on the 30th anniversary of Joel’s seminal album The Stranger in July 2008. The article was typically spot on in its analysis, particularly when talking about Klosterman’s description of Billy Joel’s career in his essay "Every Dog Must Have His Day, Every Drunk Must Have His Drink" published in the book Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs:

The "thing you think sucks is actually great" essay is a popular among pop culture writers. (I've written one or two few myself.) But Klosterman's pro-Joel screed is probably the best one I've ever read. In typical Klosterman fashion, he likes Joel for the precise reason a lot of people hate him: he's not cool. "If cool was a color, it would be black–and Billy Joel would be sort of burnt orange," he writes. Klosterman goes on to argue that "every one of Joel's important songs–even the happy ones–are about loneliness," and that his best material sounds like suicide notes. "It's almost as if Joel's role in the musical experience is just to create a framework that I can place myself into; some of Raymond Carver's best stories do the same thing." Citing Raymond Carver is an interesting defense for a guy who once allowed one of his songs to be used as the theme for Bosom Buddies, but Klosterman is pretty damn convincing.

And that’s pretty much the reason I love Billy Joel. I have re-read that quoted section about 5 or 6 times, and each time I have feeling: 'This guy is actually speaking my thoughts, but in a more articulate and thought provoking fashion'. Needless to say I put Sex, Drugs, And Cocoa Puffs on order but Killing Yourself to Live arrived, while Puffs hasn’t. I can’t wait to read that either.

Personal writing is a genre I love. It is why I adore the blogs I highlight on my page. It allows me as the reader to empathise with the writer, to get under their skin, and hopefully learn something along the way in my neverending quest for knowledge. Klosterman is a master of all these. He states in Killing Yourself to Live that: ‘I honestly believe that people of my generation despise authenticity, mostly because they're all so envious of it." This is very true, but if you want to find genuine authenticity you must read Killing Yourself To Live.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like an interesting book! I can understand why you wouldn't like reading for fun if you were forced to do it, that can drain the fun out of anything! I think watching a tv series on dvd is a lot like reading a book in that you have the imaginary world set up and get to know the characters and then follow them on different adventures...I think the only difference with reading is that the reader has input into what the world and characters look like, once they're created in your mind, reading their stories is kind of like watching tv...if you're a visual thinker. The best part about stories in books is that they aren't bound by the capabilities of CGI ;P

    So, I guess I've just described why I like reading...not sure how relevant that is now ;D