Some serious people-watching

I’ve often thought that my first novel—I plan to write it in my early 30s and will swiftly rise to meteoric fame and become impossibly rich—will be about reality television. Not because I consider the topic particularly fascinating (to others), but because it is something about which I know a great deal and a subject on which, one might say (I do), I am an unlicensed expert.

Now, if there were anyone in the world to whom I would entrust such a task, in the event that I die a tragic early death at the hands of a rare incurable disease or late-night hobo mugging, it would be Matt McDonough. But if he weren’t around (or happened to die with me at the hands of said hobo), I’d settle for Chuck Klosterman.

Generally speaking, I find that people who’ve read Klosterman tend to fall in one of three camps: (1) Love (2) Hate, or (3) “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was pretty good.” Klosterman, like David Foster Wallace, has the sort of unique nonfiction style that earns him both critics and fans, a style to which he is forever associated and from which he struggles to separate himself. As with DFW, some Klosterman adherents are less keen on his fiction, which began in earnest with his 2009 novel Downtown Owl. Before that, Klosterman was known primarily for the aforementioned Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, as well as Fargo Rock City, Killing Yourself to Live and columns in magazines like Spin and Esquire.

Me, I fall definitively in (1) Love. I agree that his nonfiction is both more accessible and more entertaining, and I agree that he can come across as needlessly self-important. But the topics he loves most—sports, television, music, media’s influence on society—are so generally unimportant (in the grand scheme of world issues) that I find it hard to get worked up about some perceived Klosterman pretension. I can’t begrudge the man his rather strong and overworked opinions on pop culture; I only wish someone would pay me to document my own. 

So I suppose after such a lengthy introduction, you may be wondering whether The Visible Man was so bad that I feel the need to praise Klosterman before shitting all over it. Quite the contrary. The Visible Man is up the exact alley one might find my circa 2019 debut novel (whose plot I won’t reveal here but does exist, scribbled on a series of Post-Its.)

The novel focuses on a therapist, Vicky, who encounters a patient, Y___, who reveals to her that he is a scientist who has created what is essentially an invisibility suit (there are references to the anonymity-inducing suits featured in A Scanner Darkly, but it’s easier to envision this one as a simple see-through deal.) Y___ has created this suit so that he can sneak into the homes of unsuspecting people and spy on them, ostensibly for “science,” and is seeking therapy so as to reconcile these encounters (or non-encounters, as it were) with his objective knowledge that sneaking into people’s houses and watching them when they think they’re alone is, well, prettay prettayyyy wrong.

For her part, Vicky goes from being a skeptic of Y___’s sanity, to a true believer in his stories, and over the course of the novel—which is told through transcripts of their encounters and diary-like entries from Vicky—becomes somewhat obsessed with him. (Wouldn’t you?)

Although Klosterman isn’t directly referencing reality TV here, it’s hard not to see the connection (plus Y____ at one point makes the analogy himself.) For me, like many people, the pleasure in reality television is in the idea of watching people be “themselves,” something Y___ is equally obsessed with witnessing. Except he really is watching people at their most honest, when they believe themselves to be entirely alone. Consequently, the most interesting parts of The Visible Man are Y___’s descriptions of the various subjects he’s watched—the girl who compulsively binge-eats and then exercises for hours, the guy who spends an entire evening composing a single one-paragraph email to someone who never replies, and so on. (Perhaps the greatest irony is that while these vignettes make the novel both engrossing and original, they are, in a sense, the reason “real” reality television—unedited, unstaged, unaltered—wouldn’t work. People by themselves can be pretty boring.)

The Visible Man is succinct, and in the tradition of Klosterman, a pretty fast read. He for the most part refrains from the long-winded tangents that are the hallmark of his nonfiction, though Y___’s therapy-induced rants on certain topics strike the same tone Klosterman tends to in his own essays. Both Vicky and Y___ are interesting characters and despite the relative lack of “plot”—there is very little rising and falling action, save Vicky’s transition from skeptic to believer—the book manages to be suspenseful. I finished it in three days.

Had someone asked me ahead of time, I suspect I would have expressed preference for a traditional Klosterman essay on the origins and ramifications of voyeurism, in lieu of another attempt at novelizing. Which is why it’s fortunate for all of us that no one cares what I think; this alternative is more interesting and quirky than anything I could have dreamed up.


Considering the three Klosterman camps, it goes without saying that this book isn’t for everyone. The Loves will love it, the Hates will hate it and the Fair-Weather Fans could probably go either way. If you’re a Klosterman virgin though, maybe don’t start here. Start with Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, or Eating the Dinosaur. Read some Esquire essays. Bone up on your TV first.

But for the Klosterman adherents—and I speak only to you now, my friends—The Visible Man is exactly what you want it to be, but also aren’t expecting. Part novel, part social commentary, part provider of unassumingly brilliant one-liners like “their relationship is founded on the repeated deconstruction of meaningless contradictions.”

What’s cool about Klosterman as a nonfictioner-turned-novelist is that one goes into his novels knowing their author’s personal opinions, and understanding his proclivity for waxing intellectual on everything from time travel to Garth Brooks. Keeping this in mind, it is to me impressive that Klosterman still manages to create characters I believe, whose own diatribes seem like their own, rather than some new funnel through which he gets to share his various worldviews. I openly accept that Klosterman isn’t for everyone—neither are Ke$ha or syndicated episodes of Jerry Springer—but if he’s for you, then The Visible Man probably is too.

TITLE: The Visible Man
AUTHOR: Chuck Klosterman
PAGES: 230 (in hardcover)
ALSO WROTE: Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs and Killing Yourself to Live
SORTA LIKE:  Downtown Owl meets A Scanner Darkly meets The Fourth Kind
FIRST LINE: “Mr. Bumpus: Well, here it is. I never thought I’d type that sentence, but now I have!”

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