College Quarterly
Summer 2005 - Volume 8 Number 3

Bildungsroman: What Students Read ... If They Do

by Howard A. Doughty

Books Discussed:
  • Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, Chuck Klosterman (New York: Scribner, 2005)

  • Indecision, Benjamin Kunkel (New York: Random House, 2005)

According to novelist and critic Jay McInerney, the modern form of the American bildungsroman dates from the publication, in 1951, of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. He goes on to say that there has been a perceptible literary evolution since Holden Caulfield detected the ubiquity of "phonies". The coming-of-age novel, in McInerney's opinion, was "reinvigorated by feminism in the 70's [sic], urbanized and coked-up in the 80's [sic]... grunged-down and nonfictionalized in the memoir-mad 90's [sic]" (McInerney, 2005, p. 1). Always the optimist, he admits being "disappointed and frequently bored senseless by the antics of Holden's progeny," but remains hopeful that one day he will encounter a "post 9/11, postironic novel [that is ready to] move beyond irony and youthful nihilism." His expectations anticipate neither great art nor great insight: "For connoisseurs," he says, "the real reward of the bildungsroman is not eventual wisdom but stylish confusion" (McInerney, p. 12). No more can sensibly be asked.

Concerning the evolution of the genre, I would go further. I would make an almost categorical distinction between books written before and the putative "summer of love." That would make Richard Fariña's Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me (1966) one of the last of its kind. Soon afterward, Norman Mailer wrote The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History (1968). Then, as we are too often told, the world changed. In that particular shake-up, the distinction between fact and fiction was self-consciously blurred and has not quite been clarified even now.

That, of course, does not mean that there is no more "coming of age" fiction; it merely means that we have lost our sense of what counts and what does not count as imaginative, creative writing. We may have lost something else as well.

In the past, every generation seemed to witness the publication of a few iconic books that more or less defined at least certain groups of young people. Either by documenting the sorts of angst experienced in the process of maturation or by composing some other sort of fiction that appealed strongly to young folk as they matured, a special relationship was struck between a particular "cohort" (or a recognizable portion thereof) and some entertaining scribbling. Some works were more fact than fiction; some were more fiction than fact. Some took the form of (gonzo) journalism; some tried for poetry; some, of course, remained as loyal as could be expected, to the standard rules of narrative story-telling (though ambiguity generally prevailed as to whether certain novels were, in fact, mainly memoirs). Blame the 500 channel universe. Blame "zines" and "blogs". Blame whole language learning.

Depending on both cultural and demographic variables, many adolescents and young adults of my generation gravitated to books such as Salinger's account of the formative experiences of youth. Others took to Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Alan Ginsberg had his share of devotees, as did (in my case, at least) Albert Camus (The Stranger, The Plague and The Fall) and Jean-Paul Sartre (Nausea). In time, John Barth (The Sot-Weed Factor), Robert Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land), Herman Hesse (Siddhartha), John Irving (The World According to Garp), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Thomas Pynchon (V), Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Los Vegas), Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) would (among many others) win their due amount of popularity.

Feel free to add others to the inventory. Those with no sense of shame could include Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, Erich Segal's Love Story, Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, or the poetic oeuvre of Rod McKuen. There is lots of room. Neither principles of enduring value nor transitory good taste need apply. There might even be room for a Canadian: try Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. Eventually, however, the list ends.

Of late, perhaps as a result of declining literacy or diminishing interest in literature, such at least temporarily monumental writers seem less in evidence. If words mean anything anymore, they are likely accompanied by music. From Bob Dylan to Amanda Marshall and Alanis Morisette, popular songwriters seem to have taken centre stage. Of course, it may just be that younger people feel no need to inform older people of their serious reading habits, just as high school students, college undergraduates and disparate bohemians of forty and fifty years ago felt little compulsion to share their enthusiasm for Howl and Cat's Cradle with their moms, dads and teachers; still, I cannot help worrying that library reading rooms have been largely replaced by MTV and iPods. Others worry too. Others sometimes become very cranky when they contemplate and comment upon the flimsy relationship between their children and the noble world of literature.

Censorious sociologists and condescending social critics tell us that the "Baby Boom Echo" (people born between about 1982 and 1995, which is to say most of our current and future students) combine tediously conventional beliefs and relentlessly conformist "values" with an absence of sustained interest in the printed page. The kids just want to fit in. They want to shop. They "text message." They have (in two merciless metaphors that I recently overheard) the attention span of gnats and the fidelity of fruit flies. Books do not give instant jolts. Books are boring. Not even the magic of Harry Potter stands much of a chance of bringing their minds into regular contact with an authorial presence and an authoritative text. That is what is said. I refuse, on frightfully little evidence, to believe it.

I must refuse lest I be tempted to chuck the entire business of teaching and seek out a palm tree beneath which to cogitate (or vegetate) for what remains of my life. I would certainly get the heck out of the classroom. Instead, I choose to think that our students do read, and admit only that their choices may be merely more eclectic, more diverse and more likely to be stored in more fragile containers than ours were at a similar age.

At the same time, if only because of nostalgia for small book shops that smelled of old wood and leather and were staffed by people who not only knew but also loved their trade, I want to think that books of some modest quality continue to be written for and by people under forty. I want to encourage the writing and reading of such volumes. They do exist. I have the evidence. I have two representative examples at hand.

Chuck Klosterman's Killing Yourself to Live is one. The bildungsroman is a form best suited to a first novel, composed in the callow flower of early life. It should certainly not wait until even early middle age. Klosterman, who writes for Spin, Esquire and GQ and is the author of Fargo Rock City and Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs slips in under the wire.

Ostensibly the story of a mad dash across the United States in search of the places where rock musicians perished, it is advertised as a reflection on death, popular culture and the relationship between the two. We imagine we may hear pithy remarks on mortality and the meaning of this final career move for the likes of Kurt Cobain and Ronnie Van Zant. On the other hand, although the Buddy Holly-Ritchie Valens-Big Bopper plane crash is given full treatment, mainly for inspiring Don McLean to tell us in eight minutes and thirty-eight seconds about the day the music died Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin, are not mentioned despite the fact that Klosterman's odyssey begins at the Chelsea Hotel in New York—Janis' old hangout. He starts there because that is where Sid Vicious (allegedly) stabbed his girl friend to death before taking a drug overdose prior to the case against him going to trial. Elvis gets a dismissive mention ("20 million Elvis fans can, in fact, be wrong"). Others get similarly short shrift: "I do think about what it would have been like if he had lived, and sometimes I worry that he would have made a terrible MTV Unplugged in 1992. But Lennon," Klosterman assures us, "is not someone I need to concern myself with today ... " Of course not. The author was only eight years old when Mark David Chapman assassinated Yoko Ono's husband. And, besides, this is not a book about death, or rock stars or pop culture. It is all about the author. It is narcissistic, self-indulgent and only "85%" true.

It is also mildly endearing and occasionally good fun. Klosterman is mostly interested in sex and, remember, it is all about him. The book works because, unlike John Irving's disclosures in Until I Find You, Chuck Klosterman did not wait until he was long in the tooth to tell his audience about his affair with an older woman. In Klosterman's case, moreover, the older woman was merely "older" by nine years (he was 20 and she was 29), a modest gap that is still within a human time-scale. His story is not about child abuse.

American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis claims that Klosterman has an "old-fashioned, all-American voice: bighearted and direct, bright and unironic, optimistic and amiable, self-deprecating and reassuring-with a captivating lack of fuss or pretension." Bret Easton Ellis should know.

Of course, critics can be found who think that Chuck Klosterman is annoying. They include geezers who are appalled at the fact that Klosterman owns well over 2,000 CDs, including all 26 KISS releases and a Peter, Paul and Mary "Best of ... " collection from which he has never bothered to remove the cellophane wrap. They will lament his lack of vinyl and shake their heads sadly when he acknowledges that he does not even own a record player. Klosterman is definitely digital. For them, "Pip" may be the epitome of a suitable character coming of age. They may even have read Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (in translation, of course). They will demand that something be made of the substance of Klosterman's cross-continent quest for meaning in the gleanings of the Grim Reaper. Klosterman disappoints on this score. He has to. He says of his book: "I was hoping that because it was death-oriented I would find some unifying principle." Spending three weeks inspecting scenes of suicide, murder and plane crashes, he wondered at the outset if thinking hard about mortality would affect the way he lived the rest of his life or at least give him a deeper understanding of living a better life. He failed. He had to. "It feels," he says, "like there should be some sort of sweeping revelation at the end, but there's not. You can't go to where Buddy Holly died and go 'Aha!' This is something that's confusing forever." (Quoted in Bromstein, 2005, p. 87).

Well, maybe not forever. Or, perhaps there is just a certain age at which we learn that confusing things can be set aside or conveniently forgotten. I resist the effusive praise that is elsewhere heaped upon Mr. Klosterman. His is probably not a "genius." His book is not all that "funny," "astute," and "canny" and he may not be as "incredibly sensitive" and "likeable" as his most fulsome fans say. But he is a remarkably crafty writer who is capable of delivering a poignant account of growing up amidst in the midst of pervasive punkishness. He is a superannuated teen-ager who gives as lucid a "voice" to his generation as can be expected under the circumstances.

Benjamin Kunkel offers something rather different. The hero of this self-assured debut novel is Dwight Wilmerding, a hapless twenty-eight-year-old New Yorker who suffers from abulia,'s Word of the Day for Monday October 4, 2004. It means a loss or impairment of the ability to act or to make decisions. Dwight is an affable, overly self-aware fool. He is regularly stymied by hesitancy and vacillation—not the sort that paralyzes people who must decide whether to marry or change careers or move to another country, but the sort that stops them cold when forced to choose which color of sock to wear, or whether to eat a peach. Dwight can be thoughtless—literally diffident to the point of functional ineffectiveness. This does not make for good relationships. He abandons his girlfriend without much consideration or concern. He has no visible marks or scars, though his distinctly incestuous attraction to his armchair revolutionary sister could provide some.

Recently fired from his dead-end job at Pzfizer, he is invited to visit Natasha, an old schoolmate in Quito, Ecuador.

At this point, Dwight—duly fortified with an experimental anti-abulia drug— and the novel take off. Our underachieving hero is promptly deposited in South America where, on no good evidence, he imagines that he might resolve his issues with women by hooking up with Natasha, whom he has not seen for a decade but is now the brightest candidate for the position of his one true love. Unfortunately, no sooner are his feet planted on Ecuadorian soil, than Natasha disappears and Dwight is left in the company of her roommate Brigid, an anthropologist, a European intellectual engagé and an attractive young woman earnestly committed to social justice. On cue, they decide to head for the country.

Now, it is plain, we have been set up for a novel about a quest. So far, the structure follows the standard template of all such work from the Odyssey to the Wizard of Oz—except that Kunkel is sometimes hilariously funny, has a fine ear for dialogue and occasionally acknowledges but consciously breaks the rules.

As Dwight pursues his quest, he cheerfully partakes of the strange fruit of the Lotus-eaters in the form of some vaguely Amazonian hallucinogens. He also gives in to the temptations of Calypso and couples with the fair Brigid. But what is the object of the quest?

As a sort of feckless fourth friend of Dorothy, it becomes clear that he is not seeking a brain, or a heart or satisfactory amount of courage. Unknown to himself, he is in need of a social conscience. Brigid earnestly tries to make him aware of the injustice of poverty, disease and cruelty beyond measure, but Dwight is a slow learner and, besides, he resists instruction. It takes more than sex, drugs and the swipe of a machete to overcome Dwight's pathological alienation, but it gets done, the story being carried along by Kunkel's wit and verbal dexterity to a conclusion that is sustained by a wonderful comedic talent that leads to a political resolution ... of sorts.

This is where the critics come a bit unstuck. Jay McInerney is enthusiastic but admits to some uncertainty. "If Kunkel had stopped his novel in midsentence some 20 or 30 pages before [Dwight experiences his epiphany], he would merely have written the funniest and smartest coming-of-age novel in years" (McInerney, 2005, p. 12). He seems to worry, however, that the author may not be doing what he seems to be doing. Has he written a post-postmodern book in which he dispenses with irony and comes "actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles or has he written a parody of the genre." McInerney takes the plunge, but others may not or, worse, roll their eyes with despair at an attempt to recover some measure of lost literary innocence.

My own view is that this is as useful a political novel as we are apt to see for some time. Writes Margo Hammond bluntly: "The novel is not agitprop" (Hammond, 2005, 21 August). It balances humor and an awareness of horror in a manner that permits readers to laugh all the way to commitment. Having been paid a seven-figure, pre-publication amount for the motion picture rights, it seems plain that—as long as the film producers have the good sense to pass over both Hugh Grant and Leonardo DiCaprio for the lead role—author and publisher will also be laughing all the way to the bank.

Works Cited

Bromstein, E. (2005, 25-31 August). Dead rock stars inspire America's smartest pop journalist. Now.

Hammond, M. (2005, 21 August). Political fiction gets my vote. St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 28 August, 2005.

McInerney, J. (2005, 28 August). Getting it together. The New York Times Book Review.

Howard A. Doughty teaches philosophy and evolutionary biology at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
Copyright ©
2005 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology