Since his 2001 debut Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman has had a pretty good decade—no nonfiction writer has been as prolific or popular. His forays into fiction, however, have been less successful. While 2008’s Downtown Owl was well received by some, it couldn’t compare to his most popular works, Eating the Dinosaur or Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.
With The Visible Man, Klosterman sets out to apply his strengths—his ability to formulate an idea, expand that idea, explain that idea, expand that idea more, discuss the ramifications, however far-reaching, of that idea, re-explain the idea, argue against the idea, expand the idea once more, then tear the idea down and start from scratch—in his non-fiction writing to fiction. And while it’s not the most graceful transition, Klosterman mostly succeeds.
The Visible Man is written in first-person, fictional memoir style, from the perspective of Austin, Texas therapist Victoria Vick.
Vick introduces the work with a letter to an editor at a publishing house. It seems the book is far along in the process of publication—Vick asks about an advance timeline—and there seems to be enthusiasm all around for a book about the so-called visible man—referred to in the text as “Y___.”
What follows is a diary-style recounting, along with Vick’s notes, of the scenes between the therapist and Y___, beginning with their innocuous first encounters. Y___’s presence is well-handled, as the reader knows, both from the title and Vick’s early pages, that he has an incredible capability, that he can somehow cloak himself. Klosterman is a master at bleeding this tension out in the early pages.
(This seems like a good time to show you the book’s trailer, which is SUPER BADASS.)
When the reveal, if you like, comes, it’s exhilarating. Still, something’s missing.
After Y___ proves his ability to become, in a way, invisible, his presence is heightened. Since his first meeting with Y___, he’s been condescending, constantly lecturing Victoria, dictating some rather ridiculous terms for their meetings, and being an impish twat all around. But he’s funny. He’s entertaining. He has great stories. And, as it happens, his desire to become invisible seems innocent if not noble.
In Y___’s long monologues about human nature and how men who live together are aggressively non-conversational and how we function when we’re by ourselves and how men masturbate, etc., it’s impossible not to hear Klosterman’s voice. As a writer, his greatest strength is formulating theories and ideas about everyday life that have rather serious ramifications. I can hear his throaty wheeze posing such a question:
What if there was a guy who as a result of some government research learned how to cloak himself? Not necessarily make himself completely invisible, but transparent, enough to trick the human eye. And what if he did so because he wanted to observe people by themselves, to understand how humans function when they are not conscious of what others think of them? Would he still be an asshole? Is there anything wrong with being the Jane Goodall of humans?
Being Klosterman, there’d probably be a reference to a movie in there somewhere. I couldn’t really muster the effort on that front.
But it is a great question, and a provocative topic. If Klosterman falters, it’s that he tries too hard to get away from this conflict between Y___ and society. In the final pages, the book becomes less about Y___’s adventures in other people’s homes, and becomes more about his perverse view of Victoria. And Victoria herself, her relationship with her husband and her professional career.
And maybe that’s brave. I know I probably would have preferred a first-person memoir written from Y___’s perspective, for the sake of reading pleasure. Those times, The Visible Man is a page-turner, and is as entertaining as one would expect a Klosterman book to be. When Y___ gets going, when his wheels are turning and he’s rambling about human nature and his survival skills, it’s enthralling. He may be a long-winded asshole, but long-winded assholes are great for monologues.
But Klosterman chose Victoria. And why Victoria? She writes in a tepid, clinical prose that’s neither exciting nor particularly pleasing. She’s not terribly interesting. She’s a woman in an unsatisfactory marriage with a condescending academic.
Klosterman’s deciding to focus on her—and her post-Y___ plight, which is sympathetic but not terribly interesting—hurts the work, overall; it just doesn’t feel right to end the book with Victoria, all the while wondering what Y___ is up to.
Perhaps, and this is just a theory, Klosterman thought it best to obscure the fact that, at the end of the day, The Visible Man could just as easily be a thirty-page essay discussing the future ramifications of cloaking technology, rather than a kinda-sorta sci-fi novel set in Austin, Texas. It’s a fine stab at turning a concept into fiction, but feels like it doesn’t reach its full potential.