Reviewed by Simon
How many non-fiction books do you come across which combine literature, music, television, sports, science, and aliens? Not that many, I’m going to wager – but, then, I could be wrong – as Klosterman’s book is continually reasserting. There are many kinds of wrongness, of course, but the focus of this book is clear in the subtitle: ‘thinking about the present as if it were the past’. How will the early 21st century be remembered in decades and centuries to come?
On the one hand, the answer to this question must inevitably be ‘we don’t know’. And even, Klosterman asserts, ‘we can’t guess’. He argues that history has been a long process of showing that what people thought was the most significant or true thing turned out not to be – and that the most long-lasting writer, musician, or thinker of a period is somebody so marginalised or underground that we couldn’t even begin to identify them. Indeed, towards the end of the book Klosterman answers – or at least acknowledges – a possible complaint of the reader:
Do I believe our current assumption about how the present will eventually be viewed is, in all probability, acutely incorrect? Yes. And yet I imagine this coming wrongness to resemble the way society has always been wrong about itself, since the beginning of time. It’s almost like I’m showing up at the Kentucky Derby and insisting the two-to-one favorite won’t win, but refusing to make any prediction beyond ‘The winner will probably be a different horse.’
Paradoxically, Klosterman’s book is no less entertaining for that. If he were to start off his literature section by saying (for example) ‘The author that the 20th century will be chiefly remembered for is Erma Bombeck’ then it would be an amusing curio but tricky to extend to book-length. Instead, he talks about the reasons behind civilisation’s previous missteps in calculating posterity, the difficulties of proving anything, and even takes steps into philosophical territory. He somehow says very little that is concrete, but manages to make the experience fascinating.
And what does he care about? It is very clear that he knows more about music than about anything else in here – unsurprisingly, given that he used to be a music journalist. His writings on the parallel successes of Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, and debating which (if either) will remain ‘the’ voice of rock, demonstrate what I can only assume is expertise. When he turns his attention to literature, however, he makes the odd embarrassing mistake (Jane Austen was not a Victorian writer, Chuck) and generally returns again and again to the example of Moby Dick. But perhaps this criticism is just symptomatic of the fact that I know far more about literature than any of the other topics he covers – and he concedes his own ignorance on matters like the science chapter. That was one of the more interesting, since he speaks to noted experts on everything from particle physics to the multiverse to the history of thought about gravity and, because he is also a novice in these fields, makes them accessible to the everyman. And Richard Linklater about dreams because, sure.
Oh, and Klosterman is very funny. This humour actually comes out most in his footnotes – not often you can say that, is it? – and they are a delightful thread throughout the rest of the work. His style is always approachable, and occasionally a little too much like somebody chatting to their bro over a beer – but better that way than the other way around, particularly in a book that doesn’t purport to be scholarly or offer anything particularly conclusive.
One interesting thing about the ‘we’, and the blurb’s talk of the ‘world’ we may be wrong about: But What If We’re Wrong? is resolutely American. To the extent that it sometimes feels as though Klosterman may only be remotely aware that the rest of the world exists. You’ll find relatively few people in the UK, for example, who consider the Beatles as primarily part of the ‘British Invasion’; more significantly, even fewer people here care about American Football (and I understood almost none of what he talked about in that chapter). And don’t get me started on his seeming belief that monarchies are necessarily ‘tyranny’.
And then there’s the Constitution. This bit amused me. Klosterman often postulates a strange new world in which we think completely differently about (say) the concept of television, or the nature of gravity. Into this can-you-believe-it category he puts the idea of questioning the importance of the Constitution in modern day America, or using it as the benchmark for everyday decisions. Hmm, Chuck, this is already how everybody I know in the UK thinks about the Constitution – we can’t get our heads around the idea that people would look to a document from the 18th century to determine 21st-century policy. We tend not to ponder what Pitt the Younger (Prime Minister when the Constitution was signed) might think about… well, anything. This is a case where ‘what if we’re wrong?’ is met with amused incredulity by much of the rest of the world. Perhaps it’s the super-American focus of the book which means that it managed to be snapped up by the relatively small publishing house Amberley in the UK?
This, of course, doesn’t make it any the less interesting – except perhaps for the American Football section, though I’m not sure I’d find the equivalent chapter about soccer any more interesting. Indeed, the fragility of some of Klosterman’s tenets and prejudices almost helps the book make more sense – since they are not ironclad even now.
Ulimately, this is a fun, thought-provoking book that I read addictively, turning pages furiously even though I knew I wouldn’t find any revelatory answers. And that is due to Klosterman’s engaging writing style and companionable personality. I’d very much recommend to anybody who wants to feel a little more uncertain about things, but not too uncertain – because, as Klosterman almost concludes, it ultimately doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to how we live now anyway.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and, who knows, perhaps the greatest rock musician of the 21st century.
Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong? (Amberley, 2016). 978-445663388, 272pp., paperback.
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