Book Review: Chuck Klosterman’s “The Visible Man” (2011)

What is the point of reviewing books, records or concerts? I don’t mean why do people review things in general – obviously many people are paid to review things. I mean me in particular. Why do I bother to review things? I don’t get paid. I’m not a culturally influential person. In the grand scheme of things relatively few people read what I write and yet there must be some reason why I keep reviewing stuff year after year.

Perhaps I write about stuff that I like in order to associate myself with those creative endeavors. By reviewing things I create a relationship between myself and the object and that relationship helps to define my public persona. It helps me to show you, the reader, who I am, or who I want you to believe I am.

Or perhaps I write about things in an attempt to get the creator of the object to notice me, to realize that I get what they’re saying, and to convince them that we should become the very best of friends. And naturally I would want to write about Chuck Klosterman because I love Chuck Klosterman and I know that we would be BFFs forever if given the chance.

The only problem is that I actually have no idea who the real Chuck Klosterman is. I know who I think Chuck Klosterman is, based upon reading his work, but that’s merely Chuck Klosterman, the writer, as he presents himself to the world. The real Chuck Klosterman might be an entirely different person altogether.

Or perhaps I write reviews just because I like writing and I believe that the only way to get better as a writer is to write a lot.

Perhaps the answer is “D: all of the above”.

And now you’re wondering, what does any of this have to do with Chuck Klosterman’s latest novel “The Visible Man”?

Probably nothing and probably everything.

***

Chuck’s second novel follows his career as an essayist who seemingly writes about “low” culture but in actuality uses pop culture subjects in order to challenge people’s perceptions and thought processes. He is a brilliant thinker, a talented writer and a man, who by all accounts, is much taller than you would expect him to be. His first novel, “Downtown Owl”, attempted to capture the ennui of growing up and living in the Midwest. Or at least I think that’s what it was about because I have no idea what it’s like to grow up in the Midwest. It was an enjoyable read and my only criticism was that many of the characters sounded like Chuck, by which I mean they frequently possessed the same overly-analytical observational voice that defines Chuck’s essays.

“The Visible Man” does not suffer from this problem because all of the expected Chuck-ism* are now delivered through the voice of the antagonist Y____. This is a good solution because I love Chuck-isms and would be remiss if the book was completely devoid of them.

* A Chuck-ism is a trenchant observation about society, life or the human condition. In addition to making these observations Chuck also likes to employ footnotes, similar to the one you’re currently reading.

Here are a few example Chuck-isms from “The Visible Man”:

  • “Runners despise their house keys.”
  • “If an author wants to make a fictional character sympathetic, the easiest way to make that happen is to place them in a humiliating scenario.”
  • “This is why facebook caught on with adults: It’s designed for people who want to publicize their children without our consent.”
  • “It’s human nature to inject every old picture with positive abstractions.”

There are many more excellent Chuck-isms throughout the book, but you’ll have to read the book and find them yourself.

***

On the surface, “The Visible Man” is a sci-fi thriller about a therapist (Victoria Vick) who treats a man (Y____) who possesses a cloaking suit that allows him to observe people when they are alone so that he can study the “real” person. This narrative is delivered in the form of Vicki’s book proposal/manuscript about her relationship with Y_____. In other words, a novel that is a meditation on the “real” self versus public personas is delivered through a framework where the story is told indirectly, in the manner Victoria wishes to present her story to the world. This is a very clever trick, as the form of the book mirrors the central idea of the book.

And while the plot is basically a thriller (and an enjoyable on at that), the story really is a meditation on consciousness and the self. As Y_____ himself says, “The more I thought about this-and I thought about this a lot, for many, many years-the more it seemed like the only essential purpose of science was to define consciousness.”

So, is the “true self” the persona that we present to others, the person we are when alone, or the person that we want ourselves to be? Are we defined by our thoughts or our actions? Are perceptions of ourselves – or other’s perceptions of us – real or not? Who are we?

***

The funny thing about Y____’s scientific process is that he states that his goal is to merely observe people – never interact with them – in order to understand how people act when they’re alone. Of course this is entirely false because Y_______ continuously inserts himself in his subject’s lives. Perhaps he is the visible man because while he can’t be seen, his actions still have an effect on people. He is a living embodiment of the Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle  – the theory that the act of observation affects to object being observed.

And this is most notable in Victoria’s life. The mere fact of her relationship with Y_____ changed her significantly even before he actually took any overt actions.

***

Of course, another reading of this book could be that Y_____ doesn’t exist at all and everything happens in Victoria’s imagination.

***

I now realize that this isn’t even technically a book review because I haven’t actually reviewed the book.

Oftentimes I feel like when people review things they judge them based on whether they think things are “important” rather than whether they’re enjoyable. “The Visible Man” is a novel. It is meant to entertain. When I review comedy I judge its success or failure based on whether it makes me laugh, as that is the primary purpose of comedy. I’m not concerned whether it’s breakthrough or legendary or important. I just want to laugh. For books I judge based on readability. A good book is one that you don’t want to stop reading until it’s finished. And “The Visible Man” is certainly that – it’s an enjoyable, readable novel.

But sometimes things do rise to the next level. Sometimes they contain ideas that make you think, that challenge your perceptions and stay with you after you’re done reading. And that’s the difference between “good” and “great”.

By that measure, “The Visible Man” is a great book.

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