By Chuck Klosterman
Blue Rider Press, 262 pages, $35
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As its subtitle suggests, But What If We’re Wrong?, the new book from Minnesota-born author/essayist Chuck Klosterman, is structured around the idea of looking at the present as though it were the past — siphoning out what ideas will endure, what perspectives will change, what artists will represent us — using our current recollections and reassessments of the past as guidance.
Klosterman admits almost immediately the impossibility and the nebulousness of such a project. But as with I Wear the Black Hat, his 2013 study of villainy in history and popular culture, the framework is a bit of a feint. As anyone familiar with Klosterman’s work is aware, he is capable of tying virtually any concept to his many cultural infatuations, and the book pivots quickly and adroitly from questioning the sturdiness of our concept of gravity to an equally passionate discussion about Roseanne Barr’s sitcom work.
Aided by interviews with a diverse crew of cultural figures (including theoretical physicist Brian Greene, musician David Byrne, and authors Junot Díaz and Amanda Petrusich), Klosterman asks a number of fascinating questions: Will rock music, in its current state of decline, occupy a similar space to marching-band music in the future — and if so, who would be its John Philip Sousa? What author today is our underestimated Herman Melville, our unknown Franz Kafka? How has our conception of even the most basic concepts, such as colour, changed over time?
The answers, such as they are, come tentatively, but it is really the process that holds the interest of the author; picking apart the reasons things have endured or been erased and applying them haphazardly to an unknowable future. And though the book ultimately offers very little of coherent philosophical value, it does not diminish the infectious appeal of both the thought experiment and Klosterman’s meandering narrative.
The true draw of Klosterman’s work is not only that he has successfully synthesized (and monetized) the kind of layered, maddeningly in-depth conversations that many readers aspire to have with their friends, but that he has also managed to make it all feel genuinely co-operative. From the 2001 publication of the autobiographical Fargo Rock City through his several books of essays and his odd stab at fiction, Klosterman takes care to extend a hand to the reader throughout, providing the illusion of partnership required to make a book (and indeed, a career) like this function.
Klosterman’s peculiar authority to tackle these larger subjects appears to come from his thoroughness and obsessiveness, to be certain, but equally from his enthusiasm, care and honesty, which is where his narrative persona shines. As he explains and assesses the minutiae of his thought process, he comfortably reveals vulnerabilities and points of access, rare in this age of aggressive, pummeling viewpoints.
Klosterman also carefully avoids any of the overtly political topics that come to mind when skepticism is brought forth. It feels like an odd omission at first, but it ultimately, and quite cannily, serves to keep the intellectual exercise from being poisoned. In one of the book’s early interviews, for example, it’s clear that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has had such a degree of negative experience with climate-change deniers that even Klosterman’s playful question about gravity has him immediately bracing for a hit. By focusing on cultural figures and concepts Klosterman, and his readers, are able to avoid the obtuse, hardened positions that typify the era.
The joy of questioning is, however, somewhat undercut by the sheer nihilism inherent in Klosterman’s premise. The idea of the things we value today having no lasting impact culturally — with beloved artists being forgotten by the press of time, whole forms and mediums being reduced to single representatives, our very perceptions of the basic facets of life being rendered inert — is difficult to process.
Yet if there is an overarching point to be gleaned from the book, it is not so much the impermanence of things — rather, it is the idea that placing ourselves, our beliefs and our time at the centre of all things is a mistake that is both constant and damaging. Estimation and appreciation obviously can and will change, but so too can the fundamentals of thought, communication and understanding.
Klosterman’s basic premise ultimately shows that, although we can be reasonably confident of certain things still being here tomorrow, we can’t predict any aspect of the far future and we can’t control how our present will be seen. Though the book is an entertainment first and foremost, it is a troubling, instructive lesson that speaks to human ego in all matters.
Doug McLean is a Winnipeg writer and musician.
By Chuck Klosterman
Blue Rider Press, 262 pages, $35
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