Like many of his beloved ‘80s hair metal bands suffering through mid-career artistic crises, Chuck Klosterman’s novel-writing period is like his 1990s. First there was Downtown Owl, a book that took various lives in a small-town in North Dakota (pot-smoking, single school teacher, high school quarterback who doesn’t understand lyrics to “Jump,” and an old man who drinks coffee at the local cafe), and now we have The Visible Man, the tale of a recluse who has invented a suit to make him basically invisible and his trying therapist, who must unravel the complex neuroses of her high-functioning patient.
I won’t dither. Both are decent books—you’ll laugh, think, rush to Wikipedia for obscure band references. But they’re not novels. They’re more like extended conversations using characters for props. Now I’m sure Klosterman himself could write a better review of his work, but in the interest of someone else having a go on him, here are my reasons for why his fiction will always remain Minor Klosterman:
1) Klosterman isn’t too smart for writing fiction. But his narrator is. Klosterman seems like a Midwestern Woody Allen. He’s neurotic, wears glasses, and dates beautiful women (I think?). But, Allen takes a back seat to his prose. You get lost in the story and forget who’s talking to you. Klosterman doesn’t. The narrator is technically the therapist Vicky, but the mad scientist and invisible man “Y______” (Vicky has redacted his name) takes over for vast stretches of the novel. Y____ is supposed to be smart (he divulges both a healthy understanding of psychology and the Beatles), but his voice never sounds that different than Klosterman in his essays. Jokes about Rush, barbs about self-reflexive media culture, and his distinctive contrarianism (you’re only visible if you’re INVISIBLE)–you never sense Klosterman leaves the stage. Even the character’s dialogue sounds the same (Vicky uses the phrase “authenticity of his persona,” which could be swiped from any Klosterman essay on Pepsi or Billy Joel). And, ultimately, his characters seem artificially smart: Vicky is not only gullible for trusting Y_____, she also tells us she’s gullible. It’s like Klosterman can never miss a beat to remind us he’s there, understanding his own characters before we can. The best moments are when his smart characters (mushroom-chomping death metal fans in Uptown) are actually acting quite stupid and childish (read: human) sitting around debating smart things (soundwaves, modern fidelity, etc). This feels honest because it feels dumb.
2) Klosterman doesn’t describe scenery. This shouldn’t be a big problem. I mean, have you read Vonnegut? There isn’t much there either. In Slaughterhouse-Five, the guy describes the train tracks in Dresden by simply saying it was like metallic spaghetti. But that’s just it—Vonnegut still antes up. In fiction, NOT describing the blueness of the sky, the leathery-feel of the couch, and the band posters on the wall is fine…if you have a good reason. But Klosterman doesn’t. In fact, at one point, Klosterman actually describes an apartment as “nice,” then delves into a diatribe how everyone knows what “nice” is and he shouldn’t be expected to give any more description. And beyond rough estimations of the temperature, the book’s setting of Austin, TX–its streets, bodegas, food trucks, pedicabs–never even receive tentative painting. This scenery-evasion seems to reaffirm my pet theory that Klosterman is more interested in trying out a new genre of writing than actually doing the whole novelist thing (for further evidence, look at this book—it’s essentially one long essay about pop culture after another from the head of an invisible man in therapy sessions).
3) Klosterman is not comfortable with ambiguity. Good fiction is dependent on a tacit agreement between author and reader that the author won’t blow the whole story by telling you too much information. Does Fitzgerald really think Gatsby is an empathetic figure? Does Rushdie really believe in a Free India? Does Louise Erdrich sympathize with Catholicism? These are questions that may cross your mind, but luckily can never be answered because the authors are loathe to leakage. But, Klosterman’s essayist mentality is didactic. His trade believes the most effective route between two points is a strong thesis statement. But, fiction is opaque, ambivalent, and frustratingly open-ended. You don’t really “learn” from novels. You “experience” novels. But, throughout The Visible Man, Klosterman tells us how to read his book like an over-anxious teenager explains the meaning behind Radiohead YouTube videos. For example, on p. 24, Y____ explains his affinity for George Harrison, the “quiet Beatle.” But rather than leave it there, we get a few lines explaining this association. Which is fine….for an essay. But, in context of a novel this feels a) totally unnecessary given Klosterman’s readership and, more importantly, b) oppressive in its deliberative handholding.
As Y__ badgers Vicky for misunderstanding his condition, as a reader, I feel similarly browbeat by Klosterman’s authorial voice for even considering veering off path with my own associations. Inevitably, he doesn’t leave any room for the reader to play. And ultimately, this is not the failure of a writer—he’s obviously at the top of his game. But it’s the failure of an artist, which maybe explains why Klosterman always felt more comfortable writing reviews in the first place.
Dare I say it? (And I think Chuck would agree): the only real invisible person in this book, is us.