At the end of Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century (2017, Blue Rider Press), Klosterman makes the curious curatorial decision to group seven essays about heavy metal before concluding with four essays about death. I say this is curious because the essays about heavy metal are Klosterman at his most esoteric, his most obtuse, and his most frustrating, whereas the essays about death are none of those things. They are just good, plain and simple. Poignant if you want a bigger word.
The 330 pages that come before the heavy metal essays are brilliant—Klosterman at his best, making fascinating and accessible people and topics that the lay reader may know nothing about. There is nothing really to note about these 330 pages because if you have bought Chuck Klosterman X, then these pages are what you expected.
The rub of the collection then is the final 102 pages—the aforementioned heavy metal and death. You see, most readers will either put the book down midway through the heavy metal slog, or skip it entirely. Because those 78 pages only truly appeal to the most fanatic of heavy metal fans and only truly make sense to people who have some cultural awareness of that era, they are mind-numbingly dull to the rest of us. I enjoyed the writing, sure, but writing can only do so much for a 10,000-word essay on KISS.
But the essays on death are what make the collection revolutionary; specifically, the essay on the death of Klosterman’s father. It is not the concluding work because the best should never be saved for last, but it is the penultimate work. It is the one that matters, supposedly, and Klosterman fritters it away.
Only two paragraphs and two sentences of a third are dedicated to Klosterman’s father in an essay that markets itself as an obituary. To some, that makes perfect sense—why dwell on death when you can dwell on other things, like football and Eminem? But for a reader of Klosterman, it makes none at all.
Klosterman is fascinated with death. He wrote a book about it (Killing Yourself to Live) and even says he is fascinated with death in the final essay of Chuck Klosterman X. “I used to think about dying all the time,” Klosterman writes. “It obsessed me.”
The rest of the essay then spirals into a digression as to why Klosterman is no longer fascinated with death, which in a sense is not the absence of a fascination but the maturation thereof. Klosterman claims that death is too oversaturated in the news media and that his obsession with death only feels performative at this point. That he cannot compete with others’ obsessions with death.
In a way, he is right. Our society’s preoccupation with our final destination is not the contrarian mindset that Klosterman initially believed but our natural state of being. We do not ignore mortality; we only ignore our own. Death, specifically other people’s death and specifically other people we only feel like we know, excites us.
The National Enquirer used to publish pictures of bodies on its front cover until its move into the supermarket checkout lanes deemed that too explicit. But for years, the Enquirer made its living off of death.
Why our culture is obsessed with what can best be described as the fictionalized death can potentially be traced to our similar obsession with the bildungsroman. We need some sort of catalyst. We need a death to spur us to greatness and initiate our rite of passage.
However, no one wants that death to actually hurt them, so they whine and moan like the death of David Bowie will impact them spiritually. Prince. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. All dead; all mourned; very little actual impact.
Klosterman calls performative mourning a type of “lifestyle branding” and concludes that he has given up his obsession with death because he “could not compete with the collective unreal.” Klosterman’s lack of mourning for his father on the page then is not a lost chance for profound reflection, but the result of acceptance. His father is dead and no performing, no makeup, no pyrotechnic guitar riff will bring him back.
Klosterman starts the final essay of Chuck Klosterman X, “Something Else,” with the line “As a youth, I enjoyed heavy metal music.” If you slogged through the 78 pages of heavy metal essays, you already know this. You groan. But this is not an essay about heavy metal. It is an essay about death and obsession. It is an essay, previously unpublished, that makes a body of work, spanning publications, genres, and decades, cohesive. It is an essay that acts as a summation of a life lived so far, and a man finally coming to terms with the straightforward, no bullshit nature of his own mortality.
Chuck Klosterman X is 330 pages of Klosterman, 78 pages of heavy metal, and 24 pages of death. The former expected, the middle endured, the latter worth the price of purchase tenfold. Twenty-four pages of death turn 432 pages of disconnected essays into a seminal work on the human condition, but please do not skip the heavy metal to get to the death.