Cognitive dissonance abounds in Chuck Klosterman’s second novel, The Visible Man, which ostensibly is about a guy who uses his ability to become virtually invisible as a way to enter peoples’ homes and watch them.
The story is told in retrospect by the man’s therapist. Even basic human emotions are gutted beyond recognition. In particular the concept of guilt is pulled apart like a frog being dissected by a kid who can’t stomach blood, but who still yet has the level of curiosity that would kill a mountain lion.
“A Man IS guilty when he subjectively thinks about what he has done and concludes that his actions were objectively wrong. A man FEELS the sensation of guilt when he objectively thinks about what he has done and concludes that his actions were subjectively wrong,” This statement is posited by a man who is neither visible nor invisible. The nuance of this profoundly ridiculous (or perhaps ridiculously profound) statement sets up the theme as well as the tone of Klosterman’s story about a man divulging his voyeuristic secrets to his therapist. It’s a genius romp through moral and intellectual abstraction.
Y__, (as he is referred to by his therapist) is transparent…sort of. He’s an isolated scientist with access to technology which allows him to go unseen. Klosterman does a good job at making the technology sound just primitive enough to seem plausible. Y__ describes how it works, right after clarifying that it is impossible to actually become invisible. “What we needed was a sheer suit that reflected light, but was covered by a viscous fluid. This fluid would capture the light and move it. The elements within the fluid are something we refer to as metamaterials, because the components are smaller than the wavelength of light. Are you understanding this premise?” he asks his therapist. At this point, does it even matter? The Visible Man is a work of fiction after all. It only matters if the idea is theoretically possible, considering that the tale really has more to do with a socially alienated hyper-intelligent man not science. Klosterman is expert at creating a net of believability for non-sci-fi readers to fall into, and perhaps sci-fi readers as well. What do I know? I don’t read sci-fi. But, after the cloaking technology is laid out I am more than ready to indulge myself in Y__’s existential dilemma. And there’s more than enough amusing egocentric intellect to go around, as well as true emotional tragedy. Y__ has endless theories on topics such as smart people having to dumb themselves down to function in society, the chasm between who people are and who they want to be, and how Americans are all, in essence, crazy:
I’d say 25 percent of our populace has craziness in the blood. It’s genetic. It’s historical. I mean, what kind of person immigrated to the New World? Not counting slaves, there were only four types, really: people who didn’t think Europe was religious enough, people who thought they could make a lot of money, antisocial failures with no other option, and fruitcakes who thought risking their lives on an alien shore might make for an interesting adventure. Those are the four explanations behind everything good and everything bad that’s ever happened here.
Of course, behind Y__’s amusing rants lies his stifling level of social impotence. He describes his sessions of observation to his therapist, Vicky, noting that, “It’s a one sided intimacy, and that’s something you can’t prepare for.”
Is it his social impotence that drives his obsession with using the cloaking technology to observe people in their homes? Or is Y__ at best a lovable sociopath? Are Y__’s descriptions of watching people just allegory for his own struggles with alienation? Or are they real instances of someone grappling with intellectual entitlement? The book itself maintains the distance between how Y__ describes himself to his therapist Vicky and what Vicky concludes about him from his own information. This is Klosterman digging out all the muck around the thin line in the way only Klosterman can, and then walking that line like a cool-headed tight ropewalker.
The shining light of The Visible Man is a section in which Y__ discusses observing a young woman with an eating disorder. He watches her come home every night to a sparse efficiency apartment, leave for a grueling run, and then return to smoke obscene amounts of weed in order to induce her compulsive eating binges. She then listens to the Beatles and does more exercise. “I was truly seeing who she was. Someday, Valerie will fall in love. She will get married. But her husband will never see her the way I did.”
He decides to intervene, but only causes problems by accidentally putting the woman’s life in jeopardy. Y__ is conflicted about the results of his decisions to intervene on behalf of some of his subjects, but not about the fact that he enters their homes and spies on them. “I came to you so I could manage the guilt I don’t deserve to have,” Y__ informs Vicky.
As a contemporary philosophical take on the bureaucratic nature of how we process our own thoughts and emotions in modern society The Visible Man is pristine, taut, and lively. This is where the book thrives, and it is the quality of this element alone that would make the book more than a worthwhile read.
The conclusion of the story however is a bit disappointing. It’s as if the end is being spoon-fed to the reader to make up for the mental demand of the first three quarters of the novel. Perhaps the end of the narrative just couldn’t live up to it’s own thought provoking demands. It simply turns into a different book in the last twenty pages. Regardless, Klosterman does something with this novel that is refreshing, original and even touching.