Artifact: But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman
Description: Nonfiction book, 272 pages.
Source: Laundromat free pile
Quality will matter at the end of the argument, but not at the beginning. At the beginning, the main thing that matters is what the future world will be like. From there, you work in reverse.
— Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong?
Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
— The Amazing Criswell, Plan 9 from Outer Space
To some extent, Thriftstorm misrepresents thrift stores. In my first eight months of writing essays here, the oldest thing I reviewed was from the 1910s, and the newest was from the 1990s. I used to work at a thrift store, sorting incoming donations, and about half that stuff was from the last five years. There was a time when you could go into any thrift store in America and find The Da Vinci Code in hardcover and Speed on VHS. Those days are waning, as new stuff gets cycled in and old stuff gets cycled out.
Something I’ve wondered from the outset is what makes something too “new” for Thriftstorm. For instance, I read a very good thrift book called The Emperors earlier this year. It’s about the royal houses of Europe during World War I, and I learned a lot, but it was published in 2014. Our society’s understanding of the crowned heads of First World War Europe has not radically changed in the four years since then. Also, the subject is neither immediately interesting from a popcult perspective nor obscure enough that its obscurity is intriguing. So I considered writing about it here, but chose not to.
That helped me define the parameters of Thriftstorm: The objects I would make a study of had to be out of place in the time I review them in. That naturally favors older works, but not always.
I don’t know why someone left But What If We’re Wrong? at the laundromat I go to. But What If We’re Wrong? is a nonfiction book whose back cover suggests it be filed under “social science / popular culture.” All the other books in the free pile that day were romance paperbacks, except one John D. MacDonald mystery from the 1950s. But somebody bought this book, read or tried to read it, and decided that a fellow laundromat patron would enjoy it. I assume this same person decided that the book’s upside-down cover was confusing enough to warrant an “up” arrow in pen.
That cover is a visual thesis statement. This book attempts to summarize and challenge our perceptions of the world. Specifically, it challenges the world Klosterman was collecting notes on in the run-up to the book’s June 2016 publication. His writing style is chatty, and discursive to a fault. At times, especially in the early going, this approach bears fruit. In trying to imagine current events that will seem important in retrospect, he produces a “partial, plausible list” that’s worth reproducing in full:
This is from chapter two, “A Quaint and Curious Volume of (Destined-To-Be-Forgotten) Lore.” This chapter is the book’s high point, and Klosterman asks a very Thriftstorm question: A century from now, what will be the defining written work of the early 21st century, and who wrote it?
He lays out some plausible suspects (those who have already achieved critical or commercial success), then really swings for the fences. Because of shifting tastes, the works we appreciate now almost certainly won’t be what people appreciate in the future. At the very least, they won’t be appreciated for the same reasons. In particular, he suspects the greatest writer of our age is someone who’s currently on the margins. His summary of this thought process is the closest the book gets to being profound:
Still, the history of ideas tells us that there are many collections of humans we do not currently humanize. They exist. So find them right now, inside your own head: Imagine a certain kind of person or a political faction or a religious sect or a sexual orientation or a social group you have no ethical problem disliking, to the point where you could safely ridicule it in public without fear of censure.
Whatever you imagined is the potential identity of the Contemporary Kafka. And if your fabricated answer seems especially improbable, it just means you might actually be close.
When I think “people everyone makes fun of,” I think furries and Juggalos. Your list may be different.
The following chapter hunts for the definitive rock performer. (A modified version of it was published as a New York Times article; you can read it here.) Klosterman’s professional background is as a music critic, and it shows. After that comes a chapter simply titled “Merit,” in which he tries to factor for that quality. Up to this point, the book is excellent.
But after that, it detours into a chapter about our understanding of physics. This is not, structurally, a mistake. But Klosterman is well outside his element, and one of his interview subjects, Neil deGrasse Tyson, seems to have taken a personal dislike to him. But What if We’re Wrong? never recovers to the previous level, in which it seemed that Klosterman was racing toward a deeper understanding of the world.
He arguably had bad luck with the timing of this book. Per the copyright page, the original hardcover came out in June 2016, and this paperback edition was released in May 2017. In between, the world changed a lot, arguably more than during any 11-month period since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. It was believed that Britons would vote to remain in the European Union during the Brexit referendum. It was believed that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. There was a world we expected to be living in right now. We didn’t get that world.
But What If We’re Wrong? is at its most tone-deaf in the chapter on politics. Crucially, its tone-deafness is in the way the words of 2016 read in 2018. The chapter is a modest little walk around the political block, touching on questions about what the U.S. Constitution means to Americans, what truly makes a president great, and the consequences of the 2000 presidential election. It’s titled “The Case Against Freedom,” but never actually makes a case against freedom. It briefly comes close, on pages 215 and 216, but in the end, Klosterman shies from the idea. “It almost feels like I’m arguing, ‘Democracy is imperfect, so let’s experiment with a little light fascism,'” is how he sums it up. “But I also realize that my discomfort with such thoughts is a translucent sign of deep potential wrongness…”
And that’s 100% fair, but as it turns out, later on that year, the American electorate would choose to experiment with a little light fascism. There is zero evidence Klosterman saw that coming. That gets to the core of what makes the back half of But What If We’re Wrong? so frustrating to read. Klosterman frequently makes a point of seeing through the patterns, then fails to see through the patterns. For instance, an elaborate, multi-page analogy in “The Case Against Freedom” concludes with this:
The fox knows all the facts, and the fox can place those facts into a logical context. The fox can see how history and politics intertwine, and he can knit them into a nonfiction novel that makes narrative sense… The fox is a naive realist who believes the complicated novel he has constructed is almost complete. Meanwhile, the hedgehog constructs nothing. He just reads over the fox’s shoulder. But he understands something about the manuscript that the fox can’t comprehend—this book will never be finished. The fox thinks he’s at the end, but he hasn’t even reached the middle. What the fox views as conclusions are only plot mechanics, which means they’ll eventually represent the opposite of whatever they seem to suggest.
It’s hard to describe how unhelpful this is without being mean about it. On the doorstep of chaos, Klosterman wrote a book about why meaningful predictions about the future are impossible, and pauses halfway through the chapter about politics to, in effect, remind you that he has no answers.
The book is better when he gives in and makes predictions, even when those predictions look 100% wrong all of two years later. In the chapter on television, he suggests that it would be instructive to know which TV show best captured the reality of the era that produced it. This is a worthy study. After extensive thought, the show he settles on is Roseanne, a sitcom that originally aired from 1988 to 1997.
A year after Klosterman wrote this, ABC greenlit the show to return for a 10th season. A year after that, ABC cancelled Rosanne again because its star had said something racist on Twitter, then blamed it on Ambien. A month after that, ABC said that Roseanne minus Roseanne would be reconstituted as a new program called The Connors.
And now, in December of 2018, Roseanne looks like possibly the worst pick Klosterman could have made. The program’s behind-the-scenes insanity has robbed it of the quality he selected it for, which was naturalism. Imagine having to explain to someone in 1997 that this show was revived 20 years later, and then having to explain what Twitter is.
The whole point of But What If We’re Wrong? is precisely that we don’t know what we don’t know. It would certainly seem to hurt Klosterman’s case if, even after factoring this in, he still blew it in less time than it took the book’s pages to brown. But I should concede that maybe he’s right. Maybe Roseanne Barr getting kicked off her own show because she said something racist on Twitter is perfectly representative of the world we live in, and I’m wrong for seeing it otherwise.
But that’s not really helpful. In fact, I’m not sure if anything in this book is truly helpful, even though I really enjoyed the first half of it. I don’t really understand what’s happening in the world anymore. I’ve spent every day since Donald Trump’s election wondering if we’re slowly creeping up on another world war. A little more each day, it feels like the peaceful global order is maintained by luck, rather than deliberate statecraft. Maybe I’m being too hard on Chuck Klosterman, essayist and music critic, for getting a prediction about the TV show Roseanne wrong. Maybe I’m focusing on this because the world feels completely outside my control.
I like thrift stores because they let me get outside my head. I can pick up a paperback book or an easy listening LP or a picture frame with the stock photo still inside it and just detach. I can visualize the world that produced these works, and I can trace the path from there to here. It soothes whatever part of me needs to connect the dots, and doesn’t force me to speculate on the future. I want to believe the future will be good, but it’s hard sometimes.
The best parts of But What If We’re Wrong? give me thrift-hope. I always go to a thrift store, yard sale or free pile with the hope that today’s the big day, the day when I discover a gem. If Klosterman makes the argument that the vast percentage of human works will be churned under and forgotten, he also argues that the ones we will remember aren’t the ones we expect to. Great works can lie dormant, waiting for their moment.
Next time, I’ll pursue this logic to an end-point, with a book whose time may have finally come.