Killing Yourself to Live

By Chuck Klosterman

It’s hard to imagine a worse book than Killing Yourself to Live, or one that says so much about the deplorable state of journalism, criticism, and even writing today. It’s very, very bad, but bad in ways that are now pretty much a norm. What does such a disaster tell us about where we are now?

A “senior writer” for the glossy rock magazine Spin, 31-year-old Chuck Klosterman is sent by his editor on a road trip across America, ostensibly to look at places where famous rock stars died. It’s an odd mission, but one well-suited to a person the dustjacket says “may be the first totally post-modern rock critic.” What this means is that Klosterman doesn’t know anything at all about music (at least he doesn’t give any evidence of it here), so his criticism consists entirely of personal anecdotes and rambling commentaries stuffed full of pop culture trivia. He is a fully-developed type of a phenomenon first noted over five years ago: the Me-Journalist.

A Me-Journalist is one more interested in talking about him or herself than reporting any kind of story. Personality is everything. But Klosterman takes Me-Journalism a step further because, being a rock critic, he also has to be cool. The meaning of “cool” has changed over the years, but one part of it has always been a lack of affect, a disengagement from the world. One never gets angry or passionate about anything, only alienated and depressed. And in this way Me-Journalism and the quest for cool make a happy partnership. The Me-Journalist doesn’t care about anything except himself, and neither does the cool person.

It goes without saying that Klosterman isn’t all that interested in his assignment. When asked, he says he’s not sure if there’s any point to it. “I keep writing all this stuff down, and I don’t know exactly why.” But when there are so many other things that don’t interest him this is hardly a surprise. When a girlfriend starts talking about The Merchant of Venice he tells us that he has “never read The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll never read it, and I don’t even care what the fuck it’s about.” That’s cool. He also thinks all museums are rip-offs (a judgment that apparently even includes the ones that are free). He drives through Washington, D.C. but has “no interest whatsoever” in the Washington Monument. He can’t understand what it’s supposed to mean. “I really don’t get it,” he complains. “It’s just . . . tall.” He can’t understand why people care about these things. Nor can he understand their interest in the natural world. The Grand Canyon? “I have no desire to see the physical manifestation of erosion. The Grand Canyon is just an attractive accident; it has no inherent meaning.” This is no gawping tourist, but a veteran, jaded man of the world. A cool guy. He visits Graceland but immediately lets us know that “Elvis never meant shit to me” and, moreover, he hates the blues. In fact, he even secretly suspects that he hates reading: “sometimes it feels like something I’m forever forcing myself to do (and for reasons I don’t understand). . . . Nobody’s paying me to read, you know?” So there.

The interesting flip-side to not caring about anything outside yourself, no matter how big (the Washington Monument, the Grand Canyon, Elvis), is the unshakeable conviction that the rest of the world really cares about everything that happens to you, no matter how trivial. And Klosterman spares us nothing. This is because his tedious stories about growing up and dating are so “hilarious” and “semi-amazing.” But then it is a hallmark of this style of writing that the author amuse himself more than the reader.

What is supposed to salvage all of this ignorant, shallow, self-absorbed drivel is the postmodern twist of self-awareness. You see, Chuck Klosterman knows that he’s writing ignorant, shallow, self-absorbed drivel. He realizes the contradiction inherent in saying that he hates reading . . . in a book. He prefaces another story with a disclaimer that he knows “there’s nothing more tedious than someone who insists on reminiscing about their bygone glory days; it always comes off as pathetic, obnoxious, and/or alienating. Nobody is impressed and nobody cares.” But that doesn’t stop him. Bored with investigating the deaths of rock celebrities he spends three pages fantasizing about his own death, and how everyone he knows will react. And then he says, “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.”

He knows, he knows, he knows. He even knows all about how the critics will respond to this book. He fantasizes about that too. “In all probability, you will 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.” Oh, he knows what they’re going to say about him, those horrible critics. Those “idiot bloggers” might even call him “the male Elizabeth Wurzel.” But, you see? He already did it himself.

Is writing garbage while saying that you know you’re writing garbage supposed to be charming? Because this is garbage. The writing is awful. “Fucking” is consistently used as an adjective, and a capitalized “ANYWAY” frequently comes in handy to help move the random narrative threads along. The unending, and totally gratuitous pop culture references are apparently meant to reassure readers of a certain age (the only possible readers of this book) that their youth was not entirely misspent glued to the tube watching sitcoms and playing videogames. At least I can think of no other reason why he insists on calling his Ford Taurus a “Tauntan”, or feels the need to tell us that the his Global Positioning System speaks in a female voice “vaguely reminiscent of Meredith Baxter-Birney during her later years on Family Ties.” Vaguely reminiscent? Later years? How bloated can you get?

Even on his home turf of rock commentary Klosterman falls on his face. While struggling through an absurd explication of Radiohead’s Kid A he suggests in a footnote that you should try playing the CD yourself “since I’m not always so good at explaining shit like this.” And when trying to say why he admires Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo record he can only admit that while, on paper (huh?), the songs are meaningless, “if you had my brain and if you had my ears” you would love it “more than you would love yourself.” That’s a big help.

But this is an important point. At first blush it might seem to offer a kind of redemption. The total narcissist who is able to love something, even an Ace Frehley song, more than himself. But no. You see, as Klostover has already made clear, “Art and love are the same thing: It’s the process of seeing yourself in things that are not you.” You only think you’ve been reading about a young man’s love for rock’n’roll and various women. It was really all about seeing himself in them, falling in love with himself. This isn’t a book, it’s a public act of masturbation. The only polite thing to do is to look away.

Review first published August 20, 2005.

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