In an often repeated 2001 segment from the syndicated radio program “This American Life,” people are asked which superpower they would prefer: flight or invisibility? On the show the choice becomes shorthand for two sides of human nature, and that kind of consideration of motive plays a role in “The Visible Man,” a novel by pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman about one man’s ability to disappear.
Built out of a series of session transcripts and notes from Victoria Vick, an overmatched therapist in Austin, Texas, the book introduces her new client “Y__,” an arrogant and generally unpleasant former scientist who uses a suit from an abandoned government project to become not entirely invisible, but unnoticeable. Admitting at one point that it “never occurred to him” to use his powers for the common good, Y__ uses Vick as a sounding board as he confesses his experiences indulging a strange voyeuristic impulse, one that hinges upon watching people when they are alone.
Arguing that people are never more real than when they think they’re by themselves, Y__ shares a series of what Vick describes as “sociopathic parables” that allow Klosterman’s keen eye for media’s role in our lives ample room to roam . Y__’s subjects include a woman who obsesses over a TV show while trapped in a binge-purge cycle involving exercise, overeating and marijuana; a frequent Internet commenter meticulously crafting notes to an unrequited crush and, most innocently, a popular teen who revels in the decidedly uncool prog-rock of Rush when no one else is looking.
While these interactions are often richly drawn and dryly funny, what Klosterman has done is create a new, semi-transparent armature to support his style of criticism in a new context, even if those critiques appear as fleshed-out thought experiments that reshape his observations through a darker, misanthropic lens.
How anyone might feel about this take on fiction hinges on how they feel about Klosterman. Specializing in examining the ridiculous sides of culture as if they were sublime and the sublime like something not entirely explored, Klosterman’s 2009 collection “Eating the Dinosaur” was maybe his most fully realized collection of analysis and sly asides to entertainment obscurities that resonate with pop culture obsessives who grew up watching too much TV or hanging out too long in record stores. With a casually smart, conversational style that can recall the sort of debates that happen among friends at last call, Klosterman can burrow into ABBA, Chris Gaines-era Garth Brooks and the social implication of the laugh track with a left-field humor and lightly twisted curiosity that’s consistently thought-provoking.
So when Y__ goes off on tangents on the cultural footprint of the Beatles, the absurdity of arguing over shows like “Lost” and the impact of technology on modern life, it feels less like a character detail and more like Klosterman trying on a suit of his own. Seemingly girding the book against complaints about its monologue-heavy construction, Klosterman sometimes uses Vick’s narration as a critical surrogate, peppering the book with wry admissions such as Y__’s “ability to speak in complete thoughts and full paragraphs was astounding, often to the point of pretension.”
Though the book takes a sinister turn as Y__’s relationship with Vick grows first inappropriate then ultimately dangerous, the book’s climax involving her mostly invisible-until-then husband feels hurried, and packs little emotional impact. Klosterman’s first novel, “Downtown Owl,” felt similarly rushed at the finish, but it was marked by an affection for its small-town characters that’s less apparent here.
Which isn’t to say the book is an unpleasant experience. Klosterman is terrifically expressive, funny company, and if references to Daniel Johnston and Chevy Chase’s “Fletch” inspire knowing nods and descriptions such as, “He looked like someone who might have played in a ska band when he was 16" conjure a mental picture, than you’re already one of his people. But even when writing a book dedicated to exploring invisibility, Klosterman’s unique voice is never less than right out in the open.
“The Visible Man”
By Chuck Klosterman
Scribner, 240 pages, $25.00