Chuck Klosterman's The Visible Man proposes that the sole deciding factor is whether or not we are alone. In the text, Klosterman's antagonist/protagonist/mouthpiece called only Y__, espouses a theory that boils down to say: Who we really are is who we never show to the world. It's an intriguing take on the Jean-Paul Sartre philosophy of Existentialism, specifically as demonstrated in his play No Exit. For Y__ and The Visible Man, "Hell is other people" is the utter, complete, scientific truth. Only when we are alone can we be ourselves. The complication, of course, comes because Y__ uses a sort of cloaking technology to observe people in their own homes* when they are alone and "actualized." Klosterman is careful, extremely, to avoid giving us too much insight into the way the cloaking works or even what we're supposed to take from the philosophy that Y__ pushes on counselor Victoria Vick through a series of phone and in-person therapist visits. Most of the time that careful cloaking of the truth within the text works wonderfully, but at other times it detracts from the essential pace and satisfaction-factor of the story. As a result, The Visible Man feels a lot like an essay collection by Mr. Klosterman, full of digressions that are on and off point, some completely analogous, but always elegantly worded. And there's the pop culture references, too. Natch.
The concept and its essential components make this book a quick read. I won't deny that it took less than a week to read, and I found myself in marathon sessions just foaming to find out what would happen next. Y__ spies on, "studying," a few people and each of these short stories, essentially those of watching people in their natural habitats like animals and remarking on their behaviors, were excellent. Klosterman takes his time, crafting lush, but not overly dramatic or overly mundane pictures of real lives. There's the lonely single guy who leaves work just to go home and do nothing on the internet all night. There's a girl who exercises all the time. A boy who talks philosophy with his friends. And more. In a way, it feels like a Richard Linklater film on par with Waking Life, where nothing happens, but through observation and contemplation we learn a lot. Except, in The Visible Man, a lion is occasionally set free into the scene, completely surprising the contemplative characters within, and destroying lives. It's really incredibly suspenseful and complex in a delightful way.
The wheels come off because of the direction Klosterman chooses to take the narrative. Seemingly only because the book could never end without some kind of forced change of course, Klosterman's Vick begins to fall for Y__ and vice versa. It's cliche, and we know that Klosterman knows that it is, but the cliche never becomes self-aware, beyond acknowledging itself. And rather than being a choice red herring, it drives the final pages of the book. Endings are important, and The Visible Man didn't go to a place that agreed with its initial tone. What starts as a thorough, thoughtful case study-cum-thriller becomes bogged down in half-hearted romance and rushed actions and explanations. The excellence and darkness written into the first 3/4 is definitely enough to demand reading this book, and perhaps disappointment won't strike every reader the way it did with me, but as with any mystery (and this novel is one), there's great risk in resolution, no matter what it is.
*I believe there's a section in Klosterman's Killing Yourself To Live, or another of his essay collections, in which he talks about his habit of looking into other people's places, specifically when he had an apartment that looked into one of a young woman. He mentions that he's not a voyeur, but that he is just fascinated by how people live in very patterned ways. It felt, to me, to be the essence of this story.
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