(Penguin Press)

“[T]he American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality,” wrote Philip Roth in 1961. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” Nearly 60 years later, Chuck Klosterman is faced with an even steeper task, but in his latest book, the short story collection “Raised in Captivity,” he beats no retreat. Rather, he paints incredible alternate realities through which he can explore, obliquely, what it means to be alive today.

The book’s subtitle, “Fictional Nonfiction,” is a way in. While these stories are often absurd, they are nevertheless clearly intended as comments on where we are and where we’re headed. In one, an algorithm is invented to permanently delete specific Wikipedia entries; in another, a medical procedure allows expectant mothers to redirect natal pain to their partners. A rock band achieves accidental success when one of its songs becomes “a runaway alt-right banger.” A man inadvertently becomes the confidant of a sex addict he barely knows when he texts the wrong “quasi-friend.”

In perhaps the most “Black Mirror”-like story of all, appropriately titled “Reality Apathy,” friends debate whether the images they’ve encountered that day are bona fide: “Here was Mark Cuban looking directly into the camera and explicitly advocating Maoism. Probably not real.”

This is a short-order short story collection, a series of skits cooked up for the here and now. As any thought piece will tell you, we live in an age in which certainty has vanished; information cannot be trusted; that’s just, like, your opinion, man. Our ambiguous slide into moral relativism has left us all at sea.

And so, in “Toxic Actuality,” college professors debate the difference between a text that may be in fact racist and a text that’s merely about racism. “[W]e’re allowing these kids to live in a false reality,” says one. “But there is no real world,” comes the reply. In “The Truth About Food,” we read of “an era when traditional science was trusted less, so radical concepts could be engaged,” facilitating conclusions like: “Medically speaking, carrots and Kit Kats are identical.” In “What About the Children,” a “charismatic autocrat” with aspirations of building a Jonestown-like cult gets admiring press from BuzzFeed for his “epic” drug-fueled orgies.

The best stories here are the ones that fall on or near the line of plausibility, exposing the fault lines in our current mode.

Topsy-turvy though it can be, Klosterman’s irony-drenched world is still recognizably our own and produces in his characters familiar effects. Although we live in an age of informational ubiquity, the withering of facts in public discourse has stunted our instincts; like the man faced with a puma in a business-class lavatory at the start of this collection, a lack of conviction and certainty renders many of us unable to act. While technology may have organized us into giant networks, achieving genuine human connection seems harder than ever — thus a man hearing a psychiatrist claim you can’t cry while tasting something new and delicious is fooled into thinking he can safely break up with his girlfriend over a famous duck dish. Other dubious ideas Klosterman’s characters warily entertain include time travel, purgatory and self-improvement via lupicide.

The real cougar in the bathroom is barely mentioned, though the irony of a political system where the line between fiction and nonfiction has been effaced to the point of meaninglessness is felt throughout. It’s this system, Klosterman suggests in a single unambiguous reference, that has produced a president “pretending to be a president who shouldn’t be the president.”


The author Chuck Klosterman. (Richard Fleischman)

If this flavor of zeitgeist feels overpowering, be assured at least that Klosterman zips through these tales with such vigor, such celerity (most don’t exceed seven or eight pages), that the reader has little time to question their conceptual novelty or integrity; at any rate, insufficient time to tire of them. As soon as one’s adjusted to his latest “Twilight Zone,” he’s already taken it to its pithy conclusion. It’s a quick-draw approach that plays to his strengths as a stylist and comic.

Not all the stories work — 24 might have been better than 34 — and sometimes the concept is too thin, the joke too parochial. Technique at the local level — the firework sentence, the quick laugh — always seems to trump the quality of the idea. This is the inherent vice in Klosterman’s work at large, which also encompasses novels, essays, sports and music journalism, and one he’s clearly aware of: He once called one of his own essays “philosophy for shallow people.”

But for the most part, “Raised in Captivity” is an engagingly sardonic collection that will leave you, like one of Klosterman’s own bewildered characters, “relaxed and confused.” Note the use of “and” not “but”; it is a hallmark of our times that we can exist in both states without conflict, off-kilter yet ultimately unfazed.

Charles Arrowsmith is based in New York and writes about books, films and music.

Raised in Captivity
Fictional Nonfiction

By Chuck Klosterman

Penguin Press. 320 pp. $26