Towards the end of the summer, I was wasting an evening with one of my friends in Micawber. Note: at the time it didn’t seem that pathetic. Anyways, in between flipping through random books I noticed Chuck Klosterman’s newer book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I’d read a few of his things on ESPN, often wondering what on Earth he was doing writing about sports. So I opened it, and remarked to my friend something like “Oh my God, this sounds just like me! Read the first sentence.” So I thrust it at her, garnering a semi-disdainful glare, since my friend has come to the entirely warranted conclusion that anything sounding like me should be regarded with caution. I then realized that it was necessary to, in fact, read the first three sentences to properly get the joke, and was about to inform her, but my friend had proceeded to read the whole first page so I decided it was unnecessary. I also decided it was necessary to buy it.
I am very happy I came to that conclusion. I can even claim to have benefited the world, or at least Klosterman’s sales, since my little brother is obsessed with the book, wrote a paper for his English class, and now has his English teacher interested, in addition to most of his no-account friends. I find this vaguely frightening, as the more I think about this book, the more terrified I become at the implications of it being popular. In lieu of a dedication, the book has a definition of solipsism and Klosterman quoting a friend saying “I remember saying things, but I have no idea what was said. It was a generally friendly conversation.” His working hypothesis throughout the book, aside from a fanatic devotion to the value of his own train of thought, is at the end of his preface, which I adore and am desirous to quote at length: “In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever ‘in and of itself.’”
Klosterman proceeds to explore this through 18 oddly titled chapters/song titles and interweaving smaller-font bits. The best three are his diatribe against a beggar for having a “poor business philosophy” (she bothered him twice within ten minutes to buy her chicken), an extended series of odd-ball-but-oddly-compelling questions, like having to decide between having every song you ever hear sound like “Alice in Chains,” or your spouse having both of his or her collarbones broken every 3 years, and his plaint that “Without a soundtrack, human interaction is meaningless.” At their worst –which is probably the Billy Joel chapter – they aimless make point after point without accomplishing anything. Some chapters are merely a string of words which one by one are acceptable, but in sum have canceled each other out. To whit, the only real point of the entire Billy Joel chapter is that “Billy Joel is not cool. But that’s ok.” But even in the muck, the book is phenomenally fun: bashing the Moody Blues, introducing us to his college roommate who only ate hot dogs, justifying his brief tenure as an overzealous Little League manager, and so on.
Though sometimes I get a bit scared by this book. Sure, I can rationalize this away- after all, this is properly an older generation’s book; we watched Saved by the Bell (Yeah, whole chapter on that too. Great. But not as amazing as the Real World chapter, the only one I viscerally disagree with, but simultaneously think positively transcendent) in junior high, Klosterman et al watched in college. But then, he talks about the Sims, which is totally our generation, and he flips out about how much Coldplay sucks because his then girlfriend went to Portland without him to see them, and he wanted to have sex. So, if it’s not exactly talking to us (he’s rather adamant about his being a Gen Xer, and he talks about stuff like seeing Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in the theater), it’s reasonable enough to pretend he is. Which is really creepy.
A lot of what he says is really, really creepy. He’s obsessed with serial killers. He tries to reduce all of life to being a question of whether you liked the Celtics or the Lakers in the 80s. It totally makes sense for a few seconds, maybe a few hours, and then you realize that using which 80s basketball dynasty you’d support to determine what car you’ll own is insane. And only slightly less insane is the last chapter, which is about Left Behind, but is titled after a track off of Kid A, which is so brilliant I can hardly contain myself. An album often described as being bleak or apocalyptic or epochal or monumental, except it actually wasn’t- hell, there’s a sample of a Princeton professor on there! And you’ve made out to it in the taproom!!- and a few of the tracks really don’t need to exist, and it would’ve been better if it were combined with Amnesiac’s better tracks, which is such a cliché argument, used to describe a book and movie about the Rapture, and if you didn’t know that, well, you can’t really be someone who gets to the last chapter and not have heard Kid A, but the title works literally anyways, and then in the end he just gives up on understanding evangelists, because in the end they’re saying accepting Jesus is more important than being good, but Klosterman is a sorta-Catholic, and he’s been imbued with some wonderfully Tridentine ideas of morality and merit, and he gives this spectacularly spooky image of how, if Hitler or Osama really thinks God wanted them to do kill people, they’re in some sense better than Klosterman when he, knowing he shouldn’t, lies and cheats on his girlfriend. And that’s really creepy.
Which sort of gets at what is so creepy about the book in general: the attitude. It’s fun to read, and it totally validates all the time you wasted with TV and video games and celeb mags and Pitchfork, and even more fun to reread, since Klosterman laced it with precisely the sort of patterns he alludes to in the intro. But the whole thing moves along with this drifting, purposeless wander. There’s even a chapter that blames this sort of malaise on Luke Skywalker, how his whole generation was given the choice to follow their fathers into the evil Galactic empire, and like half of them did, and we got American Psycho in the bargain, and the other half let go of the sky-anchor & used the force to fly through an improbable series of tunnels and escaped to listen to Fugazi and Soundgarden and watch Richard Linklater and Charlie Kaufmann flicks.
Even the book’s most bookish, normal, pointed point, a chapter about a Guns ‘n Roses cover band, ends up being full of Klosterman’s musings with the band about the authenticity of being a cover (tribute!!!) band, the dilemma of writing your own shitty songs you can’t play well for no one, or playing someone else’s amazing songs poorly on the porch of TI. You don’t mind, because you read the Nass, and you’re infinitely amused when he is talking about the Sims and what it says about the world today, and he writes “As I had long suspected, my six-year-old niece Katie is not the former lead singer of the Talking Heads,” or you read his shockingly limpid chapter on the media, which is still altogether disheartening, but ever-so-full of Dr. Pepper, which there should be more of. It’s a book that is fun to read and talk about and make conversation and pass the time by, but it doesn’t much care if anything else happens.
And even if most of life is passing time, and it just happens that some people pass time by curing cancer, but I’d probably rather be listening to a CD or skiing or just talking about nothing too upsetting except for little stuff it’s fun to freak-out about like sports or movies or interior decorating, isn’t there still something better about the doctor? And if we say no, and Klosterman is about as sweet of a way to say no as I know, then… what the hell? Well, anyways, he at least has the decency to warn you of this in the preface, and I think has as much of an answer as I’d like: “The goal of being alive is to figure out what it means to be alive.” Which is true. I just don’t think we’re doing a very good job of it, and if that many people like this book, I’m afraid we’re not getting any better at it. But at least we can talk about the metaphysical and ethical implications of disliking contemporary country music. Or, as Klosterman says, “I’m angling for purgatory, and I’m angling hard.”