In his monthly column, Conspiracy, Rich Cohen gets to the bottom of it all.
Do you ever feel like you are somewhere you’re not supposed to be? In a world that is not supposed to exist? Have you ever marveled at how long you have been alive, how old you feel, or how different the world has become than the world you once knew?
Have you ever woken in the dead of night, sat up in bed and said, as if from the depths of your being, No. This is a mistake. This is all wrong.
Is it the coronavirus that makes you feel this way, the quarantine, the deaths? Is it the fact that you currently spend twenty-four hours a day with your kids, the youngest of whom sounds like this, MAW, MAW, MAW?
Is it that you will be seventy if and when that child graduates from college, if you are alive, if there is college?
Is it the spooky new relevance you find in the Hank Williams Jr. lyric, “The preacher man says it’s the end of time and the Mississippi River is going dry”?
Is it that you live in a flat-roofed house made of windows, that New Orleans was again destroyed by flood, that California was ravaged by fires, that the Chinese have sent a ship to the dark side of the moon, that giant pieces of the Greenland ice sheet routinely calve off and fall into the sea with a splash?
Is it that you’d never imagined such a future when you were a child, the eighty-degree December days, the snowstorms in August, the drilling in the Arctic, the bears ambling down Main Street, the vines creeping through the sidewalks, the way citizen turns on citizen and every moment is captured on camera?
Or is it the obvious thing—that Donald Trump, who’d been a poor man’s Gordon Gekko, a symbol of superannuated buffoonery, occupies the White House, which he has burned down as thoroughly as the British, though only half the country seems to know it?
Or is it that, though so much has changed, the rulers of the political class have remained the same, as if the revelers at Woodstock had stayed at Woodstock even after the death of Jimi Hendrix and Keith Moon, and the legalization of marijuana, and the cultural acceptance of LSD, stuck around until the world itself became Woodstock and we were all naked and trapped on Max Yasgur’s muddy farm because the boomers, who have long bludgeoned us with their numerical superiority, simply won’t leave?
What if that queasy feeling is less a feeling than a sense, less a fantasy than the hunch that turns out to be true? What if the road forked, then multiplied, and we ended up on the wrong one? What if you went home one night, pulled back the covers, and found someone sleeping in your bed, and it was you, only with a thin French mustache? What if another you in another world is waking to the squealing brakes of packed school buses and movie theaters and students moving onto college campuses and grocery stores where there are no arrows on the floor and no masks on people’s faces and where friends meet and hold hands, all overseen by a federal government so benign and trustworthy that you forget all about it?
When did we as a people, a nation, a polity, shift onto the wrong rails, glide into the deep swamp of despond?
Some say it happened in January 2017, when Trump was sworn in by Chief Justice Roberts. Some say it happened in the fall of 2019, when the virus went from the bat to the pangolin, or when the pangolin was carried into the wet market, or—to hell with the pangolin; forget the pangolin!—some say it happened when the virus escaped the lab, but I’d set the date earlier, back in 2009. After all, when you get on the wrong train, you usually don’t know it right away. As much as an hour can go by before you look out the window at the smoking wreckage and ask yourself, Where the hell am I?
Nearly 800,000 Americans lost their jobs in January 2009, the single worst month of the Great Recession, but that wasn’t it, that wasn’t the moment. Nor was it the first reported cases of swine flu in Mexico that year. Nor Michael Jackson’s death on June 25. Nor Congressman Joe Wilson heckling President Obama at the State of the Union, shouting, “You lie.” Nor the Tea Party, which held its first rallies in September. Nor the fib told by parents who said their child had drifted away on a balloon that resembled a rocket ship in what came to be known as the Balloon-Boy Hoax. All these events, portentous though they seemed, were red herrings, as galactically unimportant as fizz in a can of soda.
Two thousand nine’s big moment came on November 20, when some nameless engineer pressed the button that turned on the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, a twenty-seven-kilometer tunnel that winds beneath Switzerland and France. (The LHC was completed in 2008, but it took fourteen months to work out the kinks.) The LHC accelerates high-energy particle beams, in opposite directions, to within a hair of the speed of light, then collides them, just for the hell of it, just to study the wreckage, just to see what comes out in the wash.
Concerns were expressed at the time—the LHC might set off earthquakes, summon superstorms, even kick open the door to hell. Others said it could cook up tiny black holes—this is something physicists at CERN are actually trying to do—that might gobble all known creation, even God, or rend a hole in the fabric of space-time, dropping us into an alternate universe, where we’d be as lost as a yokel in a carnival funhouse. It could even coil the fate of our universe with that of another. Imagine two rivers separated by a spit of land. At full power, the LHC could blow a hole in that spit, mingling the rivers, which—staying with the grandiloquent analogy—are the past and future of two universes, sending us down a mongrel cataract, where different people recall different pasts, and anything can happen.
All such talk was dismissed as the raving of lunatics, creationists, fools. But, with each passing day, with each impossible turn in the news—the UK leaves the EU, the Cubs win the World Series—it seems clear that the “fools” were right, that the monstrous thing happened, that the LHC opened a hole into another universe—one in which Donald Trump is king—and in we went.
And, as any reader of science fiction knows, once you’re in, you’re in.
Rich Cohen is the author of The Last Pirate of New York: A Ghost Ship, a Killer, and the Birth of a Gangster Nation.