Like the singer who decides to record a solo album or the marquee actor who wants to direct a vanity project, it always makes me a little nervous when an author primarily known for one genre decides to try something new. This is doubly true of Chuck Klosterman, a fellow who belongs to that little coterie of unlucky authors and journalists with whom I identify to a probably unhealthy degree (see also: Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Rob Sheffield). He’s known primarily for penning pop culture-obsessed essays whose train of thought runs so closely parallel to my own that in rare moments of self-confidence I find myself thinking, “See, I could do that.” His nonfiction collections, Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto and Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story, are clever and perceptive and often laugh-out-loud funny, and they’ve sort of served as a bellwether for my own thinking about music, media, and celebrity. In his book Writing with Passion, Tom Romano talks about “distant teachers,” those people from whom we learn even when separated by geographical distance. For a dozen years, Chuck Klosterman has been one of my distant teachers.
So I was a little nervous when, in 2008, he published his first novel, Downtown Owl. I still haven’t read it. If it sucked, if fiction was a poor fit for his talent, I wasn’t sure how it might tarnish my view of his other work. Then he published The Visible Man in 2011, and it somehow ended up on my shelf, which meant I was obligated to read it as part of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project. (There’s a slash in blue magic marker along the bottom of the pages, which makes me think I must’ve picked it up in Barnes & Noble’s clearance bin, to be read at some distant point in the future when I was emotionally and intellectually prepared for disappointment.)
Here’s the verdict on The Visible Man: It’s delightful. I use that word rarely, but it fits in this case. It was blast from start to finish, a breezy (but at times deceptively sophisticated) treatise on identity, human nature, motivation, and The Beatles. I devoured it in two 90-minute sittings.
Written in the form of a book draft written by therapist Victoria Vick and submitted to her editor, The Visible Man details her run-in and subsequent sessions with a patient who claims to have invented a suit that essentially renders him invisible (Klosterman describes the science, but I’m not sure I understand it, and even if I did it’s too complicated to relate here). Victoria is understandably skeptical, and she treats their first several sessions (the synthesized transcripts of which make up the narrative) as the rantings of a delusional individual who’s suffered a break from reality. Then Y__ (as he’s referred throughout the book) shows up at her office in the suit, and Victoria realizes he’s telling the truth.
As he explains it to her, Y__ is using this tremendous invention to conduct an experiment on humanity. He simply sneaks into people’s homes (hoping to find that alone; multiple residents present too many logistical complications) and watches them. He stays for several days, seeing how they act when they think no one else is watching. This, he believes, will give him insight into the true nature of humanity, for it’s only when no one else is around that we’re truly being ourselves.
The Visible Man, at this point, shifts into what reads almost like a series of short stories, as Y__ tells Victoria several of his most memorable interactions with those he observes. There’s Valerie, an obsessive-compulsive who works out with fanatical zeal only so she can spend her evenings smoking massive amounts of pot and eating ungodly amounts of junk food. There’s Bruce, the Internet multitasker who’s mainly concerned with drafting the perfect email to a woman. There’s “The Half-Mexican Ladies Man,” who somehow divines that Y__ is watching him. And most disturbingly for Victoria, there’s the tale of the Heavy Dudes, an interaction that ends in death and incarceration. All through these sessions, it becomes clear that the relationship between Victoria and Y__ is developing into something beyond therapist and patient, and the implications of that evolution push the book into his final suspenseful chapters.
Because this is a Chuck Klosterman book, there are passages that are undeniably funny, such as when Y__ describes one 74-day-long relationship as “like having sex with the Falkland Island War.” And of course there are references to music throughout that are entertaining but read more like Klosterman inserting his voice into the story than growing organically from the characters. At one point Victoria and Y__ have an argument about the ubiquity of The Beatles, and one of Y__’s first experiences watching another person centers on the band Rush. This didn’t particularly bother me, but I could see narrative purists crying foul.
The most interesting thing, to which I alluded above, is how The Visible Man actually has some sophisticated things to say about human identity. There’s Y__’s central thesis, which is the importance of viewing people unobserved when they’re alone, but there’s a section later in the book where Y__ talks about how at some point an individual’s identity is fixed, and that person will largely stay true to that personality, even if circumstances change.
The first time I realized I could enter someone’s home, there was this predictable rush of power. There was an immediate recognition that I could do anything I wanted. I could kill a man and never be captured. I could rape a woman and she’d assume it was just a horrific nightmare . . . But the fact of the matter is that I’m not a rapist, and the fact that I suddenly had the means to become a world-class rapist wasn’t going to change that. We always end up being ourselves, somehow. I was who I was long before I consciously became the person I am.
And that’s really the question Klosterman is interested in exploring: Who are any of us, really? The Visible Man is better than I expected and, even more importantly, better than I hoped, and it immediately marks Klosterman as not just a first-class essayist, but a first-class writer in any genre.
The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)