Review: ‘But What If We’re Wrong?’ by Chuck Klosterman

But What If We're Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the PastBut What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past by Chuck Klosterman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Every time I read an essay by Chuck Klosterman — and, given my interest in music and pop culture, I’ve read a number of them — I’m struck by his self-deprecating tone. It’s the written equivalent of throat clearing and foot shuffling: parenthetical asides, wryly humorous footnotes, run-on digressions from his central point. It can be charming.

But in small doses, and in the right context. In “But What If We’re Wrong?” it becomes, frankly, annoying.

The book’s conceit is a good one: What will matter in 300 or 500 years? What will survive of our culture? After all, as Klosterman observes, if you look at what people valued or how they thought in 1600 or 1700, much of it is now considered wrong (scientific ideas) or minor (popular books of the era). Pop culture/art & literature, in particular, has a way of disappearing and then being revived, as with Melville’s “Moby-Dick” (a failure when it appeared, and forgotten until about 50 years later) or any number of movies (though God help us if Michael Bay is taken seriously by 23rd-century cineastes).

When it comes to his wheelhouse, music, Klosterman is at his best. Assuming rock music is simply a bygone genre by 2200, what aspects of it will remain? What artist will stand out as being most representative? After making the usual distinctions between “rock ‘n’ roll” and “rock” and “pop” — distinctions he acknowledges will likely be pointless, and perhaps already are — he comes to a conclusion that Chuck Berry will be the last man standing. Which anyone familiar with the “SNL” sketch about the alien response to Voyager — “Send more Chuck Berry” — could have guessed.

He has some provocative digressions about “merit” (does it matter? who decides?) and perception (is your idea of “blue” the same as mine?) but soon gets trapped in muddier waters. Perhaps the nadir is a chapter on scientific truth, from which Klosterman segues into a discussion of philosophical truth.

It bugged me in two ways. For one, the point of science is to suggest theories based on observable phenomena, or at least some mathematical bedrock. If you want to throw in “Matrix”-like concepts of living in a dream world or alien-manufactured simulation, feel free — but it stands outside the science. (It makes me think of Douglas Adams, frankly. And thanks for all the fish!) In science, if a hypothesis doesn’t pan out, then you construct a new one based on the evidence. This is a continual process.

The other was in Klosterman’s shambling style. It’s reasonable to speak out loud about the blind alleys of your thought process, but it’s also reasonable to have an editor who can remove some of that conversation from the end product — as well as some of the lesser jokes. Here, Klosterman’s meanderings are no better than a late-night college bull session.

Other essays fall between these two poles — a discussion of the future of football, for example, or the Internet trope of “You’re doing it wrong.”

The thing is, Klosterman’s a bright guy. Even when I wished he would remove a reference to some mediocre ’90s band, I kept reading because the ideas he’s working with are fascinating. If he’d written a whole (assertive) book on the musicians/TV shows/movies/etc. that people would be talking about in 300 years he may have been on firmer ground. But in trying to be expansive, he just becomes tedious. (For science, a better view is Bill Bryson’s often wide-eyed “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” which does a good job of translating difficult concepts to the layman’s level — that is, mine — as well as leavening it with enough humor to make it sing.)

Also, it makes the book lumpy. For that, I blame his editor, who could have smoothed things out considerably, but decided to let Klosterman be Klosterman.

So, come for the music. But go elsewhere for the science and philosophy. And send more Chuck Berry.

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