Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Book I Read: The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman

I was sure I had blogged a review of Chuck Klosterman's first novel Downtown Owl, but when I went back to look it up I couldn't find it. My decision not to render an opinion on Downtown Owl says something about the book itself, or at least about how I remember it. The look at life in a small North Dakota town, told from multiple points of view, was a pleasant read that revealed a new side to Klosterman's talent. But nothing about Klosterman's fiction made me want him to give up the funny, clear-eyed reviews and essays that he writes for various magazines and websites. Who better to break down Lou Reed and Metallica or the pomposity of 1970's rock? Now here comes Klosterman's The Visible Man, a second novel of ambition that yields frustrating results. As a novelist Klosterman is a "writer to watch" in the sense that he's willing to cross genres and defy expectations, but this time out he isn't saying as much as he thinks he is.

Set up as a series of messages, notes, and transcripts, The Visible Man is told from the point of view of a rather ordinary therapist named Vicki. The book we're reading is a manuscript that Vicki is attempting to turn into a published book for reasons that will become clear. Most of Vicki's practice is ordinary, she sees herself as less interesting than the Lorraine Bracco character on The Sopranos. The book is the story of Vicki's patient Y., who after a series of phone sessions agrees to come in and meet Vicki in person. Y. is prickly, secretive, condescending, and controlling and at first seems easily diagnosed as delusional. Y. claims to have invented a method by which he can completely conceal his presence; or to use a term that's hotly disputed in the novel, he can become "invisible". The scene in which he proves his claims shifts the balance power in his relationship with Vicki. I don't know how much research Chuck Klosterman did into therapeutic practices, but the therapy scenes in The Visible Man after Y. reveals his abilities feel like works of performance art. Y. talks almost non-stop in an attempt to describe and rationalize the experiences he has had while invisibly dropping on people's lives. Y. watches a woman smoke pot and watch Lost. He spies on a group of bikers debating philosophy. Vicki observes several times that Y.'s statements feel scripted but she never challeges Y. on this point, and she offers almost no resistance as Y. dictates the subject matter and length of theirsessions. All of Y.'s visitations are in service of some great project to understand human behavior, yet Vicki (and we) can see that in fact she's dealing with a voyeur though she's too much in Y.'s thrall to call him on it.

The Visible Man avoids most of the expected rest stops that invisibility offers to a plot. Y. isn't much interested in sex with or in taking from those he observes, in fact he takes only what he needs to survive. Initially Y. seems to be a sort of messenger from the world, reminding us that even the lives of people we never think about have value. The message gets muddied as Y. becomes more eccentric and the novel edges towards violence almost out of necessity. Klosterman has created a fascinating situation but either lacks the skill or just isn't interested in taking Y. to a place he wasn't at when the novel starts. Y. gets to ramble as if he's the subject of the sort of celebrity interview that Klosterman would never do. Chuck Klosterman has a natural gift for finding the key moment of a song and the hidden truths of the lives of Midwestern heavy metal fans, but with The Visible Man he has spent too much time on structure and too little on content. May Klosterman's next novel do less and say more.

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