Wed
Aug 22 2012 11:00am

Through a Klosterman Darkly: The Visible Man Is the Great SF Novel You Might Have Missed

Genre in the Mainstream on Chuck Klosterman’s The Visible Man, a Great Science Fiction Novel You Might Have MissedIt’s next to impossible for some writers to escape how their initial success defines them, and Chuck Klosterman certainly became a successful writer, initially, for a specific reason. Making his career as a kind of critic/pop guru at Spin magazine, and then with his debut essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, you could say Klosterman invented and perfected the culturally savvy voice that so many bloggers rely on today. (I wouldn't be doing what I do if not for him).

But what of Klosterman the fiction writer? Did literary society want this cultural critic/ music journalist/sports writer to become a novelist? Maybe not. But he is one, now, and I’m happy to say that 2011’s The Visible Man (just out in paperback this June) is one of the best crossover science fiction novels I’ve read in years. 

The Visible Man is presented as a collection of somewhat disorganized notes sent from psychiatrist Victoria Vick to her supposed publisher. She writes of a specific patient referred to throughout only as Y___. In her introduction, Victoria apologizes profusely for the structure the book and attempts to explain why the narrative devices employed throughout are so diverse: some of the story is drawn from phone calls, some from actual recorded sessions, some from memory. This gives the book a convincingly grounded reality, while at the same time allowing the shifts in narrative framework to quicken the pace.

It’s a fast read, which is no small feat, considering that the majority of the situations are actually just Victoria and Y___ having a conversation. But over the course of these sessions Y___ seemingly reveals why he is seeking help: he’s built a personal cloaking device, referred to as “the suit,” which renders him invisible to most people. Klosterman tackles the problem of explaining the tech of the suit like a true science fiction writer and literary novelist at the same time. Y___ is an expert in his field and early on describes himself “on the most radical edge of science.” Later, after he’s revealed his suit and its abilities to Victoria, she prompts him to actually explain how it works and how he came to invent it while working on a secret government project.

“We were instructed to make these cloaking suits, although—as I said before—none of us really knew why. And obviously, you can’t make a fabric that disappears on its own. That’s nonsense. But we came up with a concept that immediately felt semiplausible: 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 the premise?”

Y___ is a highly irritable/arrogant character with a visage (when uncloaked) resembling a bald Ichabod Crane. His constant berating of Victoria and seemingly amoral values makes the reader uneasy from the get-go. Y___ is a kind of contemporary science fiction Holden Caulfield; he hates phonies. He detests what he sees as the opposite of reality and believes people are only truly themselves when completely alone. And yet, in life, we never see people when they are alone. Enter the cloaking suit. Y___’s entire mission is to observe random, mundane people while they are alone. But several things have gone wrong, and now Y___ is confessing all of his activities to Victoria.

These confessions form the majority of the novel's narrative backbone, with Y___ detailing the specific people he’s observed, and Victoria reacting to the increasingly horrific accidents which ensue as a result of him invisibly involving himself in people’s affairs. Towards the end of the book, in a section called “Heavy Dudes,” Y___  breaks his rule of observing people alone, and instead watches two men: a bully named Zug picking on a guy named Dave in Dave’s own apartment. Y___  decides he likes Dave and that he’ll stick up for him by freaking out Zug.

“I was only going to freak him out. That was the totality of my intention. I thought I would just scare him, fuck with his mind, fuck with his reality, put him in a subordinate position. Was it out of character for me to do this? Yes. But I did it for Dave. Dave deserved my help.”

Y___ does little to actually help Dave, and (without ruining the drama with specifics) this ends badly for many of the people involved. What makes this scene work is exactly what is so brilliant about this novel. Y___ claims he only wants to observe the truth of human behavior, but in nearly every single case of pure observation he always manages to get himself involved in the situation. The absurdity of this notion is heightened by the fact that he’s telling Victoria all of his exploits and that we’re reading about them. Nothing Y___ has done is remotely secret or invisible!

Klosterman deftly uses an awesome and classic science fiction premise to create unique situations which both rely upon and comment on technology at the same time. His keen awareness of pop culture is effortlessly folded into the narrative, making all the characters seem to be completely real people, even the enigmatic Y___. Further, the novel itself is extremely original, approaching something as complex as a Nabokov novel like The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, but equally at home with a Vonnegut book like Slapstick. Plus, plenty of references to actual science fiction, from Star Trek to Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly are incorporated throughout—in fact, Y___ tells Victoria at some point that the idea for the cloaking suit was taken directly from A Scanner Darkly.

Unlike the cloaking suit in The Visible Man, the suits in A Scanner Darkly constantly change people’s shape into something they weren’t before. With this novel, Chuck Klosterman has put on a literary scatter suit and transformed himself into a completely new kind of writer.

This one is not to be missed.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com.

3 comments
Joshua Starr
1. JStarr
Hey, neat. I'd begun finding Klosterman's cultural criticism a bit too facile, but this sounds like a quick read I might enjoy and respond to. Hooray for book reviews.
BryanAdams
2. BryanAdams
I bought this as an e-book and read it twice over the last year. I also recommend it: I've read all the other CK books, and this is a worthy addition. I really only have two issues.

1, I wish it were longer -- I felt like there was uncovered territory, which is unusual for CK. If anything, he typically wrings every drop out of a concept. I wonder what the circumstances of the writing were: was he on a deadline? Did he lose affection for the concept? Was there an overly-aggressive editor?

2, No one in the book ever quibbles with the central notion that "we are who we are when we're alone." It's more or less taken by everyone at face value, even though I pretty much disagree with the notion on its face. This didn't compromise my enjoyment, but discussing the ways in which the assertion is or isn't true / valid / interesting would have made for a helpful chapter, IMHO.

But in a world where you sometimes buy a book and regret it withing 50 pages (hello, Bill James crime book), this is worth buying.
Ryan Britt
3. ryancbritt
@2
I think I may agree with you about the length. It COULD be longer.

On the notion of "we are who we are when we're alone": it worked for me because the story was told from limited perspectives through both a small number of characters and specific narration methods. Had there been some kind of long-lens 3rd person omniscient narrator, I'd agree with you. But as it stands, I think it's okay to understand that these people buy into that notion.

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