December 7, 2011

Book review: "The Visible Man," by Chuck Klosterman

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The Visible Man, by Chuck Klosterman

The Visible Man
By Chuck Klosterman

So yes, after reading the abysmal Downtown Owl a few years ago, I infamously declared here that I would never read a Chuck Klosterman book again; and indeed, I would've never read this latest of his, The Visible Man, if it had not randomly shown up on the "New Releases" shelf of my neighborhood library on an exact day when I was perusing it. But now that I have, I'm sure glad I did, because the book is something I thought Klosterman incapable of; this is Klosterman quite convincingly reinventing himself, shedding his Postmodernist, Gen-X skin precisely by writing a book that stabs that skin to death, sets the corpse on fire, then sh-ts all over the ashes. And to explain that better, I need to go into a little literary theory of mine, which I've gone over here before but will do again, because I find it naturally interesting; and before I start, let me acknowledge that it's an unproven theory that a lot of people don't agree with...

The basic crux is that I and a lot of others believe that Postmodernism officially died on September 11th; and by "officially" I mean "symbolically," because as with any cultural movement, Postmodernism actually changed only gradually over a period of a few decades, with us as humans making order out of the chaos by arbitrarily picking important dates in those periods to serve as beginnings and endings of such eras. And just like how the last couple of decades of Modernism, the 1950s and '60s which you can also call "Late Modernism," can be further broken up into "Beat" writers, "Pop" painters, "New Wave" filmmakers and more, so too can the last few decades of Postmodernism (or "Late Postmodernism," the 1980s and '90s) also be broken into subdivisions like "Generation X" writers, "Brat Pack" actors, "grunge" musicians, "Deconstructionist" architects, etc. These are the unfortunates of any given era, because the tropes of that era are so well-known by then, the last artists of that movement can only achieve fame through cartoonish exaggerations of them; and although many of them push through to become the groundbreakers of the next era, that group of creatives in general tends to get blamed for driving that era into the ground for good, and for necessitating the cultural shift to the new era in the first place.

And so that means these artists must basically all reinvent themselves in the middle of their careers, or become passé faster than a three-year-old rerun of American Idol. And so some Postmodernists like Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis successfully did so, becoming relevant to a whole new generation by trying to strip all the cool irony and empty pop-culture references of Late Postmodernism from their work, by embracing genre conventions sometimes and wallowing in earnestness others; and then some people like Augusten Burroughs or James Frey simply didn't, and their quasi-true, quasi-BS smartypants '70s-laced gimmicky shtick started getting real old real fast the moment the World Trade Center was destroyed. And this new era too can be given a name, which some call The New Sincerity and some Post-Irony and some simply Post-9/11 Literature or the 21st Century Arts; it's really up to history to determine which terms like these stick, and especially right now when things are so new that no one's in agreement about any of it yet.

And so for a long time did I think Klosterman was going to fall into this latter camp, of essentially gimmicky hacks who were never able to transcend the gimmicks that gave them successes right at the end of the Postmodernist period, much like all those trendily popular "Genteel" writers of the early 20th century, huge in their own time but now nearly forgotten because of the ascendancy of Early Modernism in those same years; and especially after the bitter failure of his full-length fiction debut, Downtown Owl, which had been hyped as his opportunity to break out of the endless clever-but-empty essays about heavy metal and breakfast cereal and celebrity interviews that his entire nonfiction career had so far been based on, but which turned out to be more like a 200-page Chuck Klosterman article but even more quirky and precious than his journalism work, if such a thing is possible. But with The Visible Man, Klosterman has done something very smart indeed, and what a lot of Postmodernists have ended up doing as a transition into Sincerism (see for example Eric Bogosian's Perforated Heart, which has the same device at its core), which is to announce the death of Postmodernism but through a highly original, highly symbolic metaphor, a sideways look at the subject but which ultimately says more about them as '80s and '90s artists than the subject matter might indicate at first.

So in this case, Klosterman wrote a literal psychological horror tale, with a premise that feels very much like it could've been an early David Cronenberg film; basically, an Asberger's-suffering sociopathic genius manages with military resources to invent a suit/gel combination that effectively turns a person invisible (or that is, the cutting-edge micro-lenses contained in the gel that's smeared over the suit has the almost magical ability to bounce back all light to a viewer as the images directly behind the suit itself), then becomes obsessed with silently observing people in their homes for days on end, to back up his nihilistic thoughts about the worst of human behavior, pumping himself full of amphetamines to stay awake and suppress his appetite, slowly turning himself crazier and crazier with each successive experience. And so part of the book is written as a series of direct monologues from this literal mad scientist, polished things that feel the most Klostermanian and I assume were the first parts the author wrote; but then perhaps realizing that he needed something more to hold it all together, part of this is written from the standpoint of the psychologist who our unnamed narrator Y. starts seeing, a highly confrontational relationship where the doctor is able to parlay all the critical things about Y.'s character that Y. himself would never be able to acknowledge through first-person monologues. And that's smart of Klosterman to do, and shows a legitimately profound jump in maturation for him as a writer; because the Klosterman of Fargo Rock City would've been happy with just the polished monologues themselves, and The Visible Man would've again been a clever but ultimately empty book like all his others, and we wouldn't have had a chance to explore this fascinating character in a much more complex way, or for Klosterman to be able to make some really critical comments about Y. himself, for example just how troublingly polished these monologues of his precisely seem, as if the patient had pre-written these glib anecdotes and then memorized them all for the benefit of the doctor during their sessions.

And that gets into what I was talking about before; that on top of this being a literal simple genre tale, it's also easy to argue that on a deeper level, this is an autobiographical novel as well, Klosterman angrily rejecting the over-analytical pop-culture-obsessed celebrity-interviewing cartoon character he had become by the early 2000s, literally by turning that persona into a borderline-psychotic villain. And the reason it's easy to argue this is that Klosterman himself throws all kinds of little clues into the mix that point in this direction; for example, there's the fact that so many of these monologues sound like Klosterman essays in the first place, or the moment that Y. directly compares what he does to the job of the average celebrity interviewer, the aspect that lazy journalists have most picked up on this fall when talking about the book. But there's also a whole series of smaller digs that he gets in, such as when the doctor asks why Y. doesn't just write a book about his experiences instead of relaying them vicariously through combative therapy sessions, and he responds that "everyone seems to hate it when I try writing down my stories," and that he doesn't know what gets lost in the writing process that remains when he's simply talking about it to someone else.

Make no mistake -- The Visible Man's narrator is deliberately designed to be unsympathetic to the point of sometimes being despicable, with the Victorian-style story-framing very early on hinting at a grand tragedy to end it all; and whenever our psychologist hero (not coincidentally the most earnest, sincere character to ever appear in a Chuck Klosterman book) complains about Y's overuse of empty pop-culture references, his haughty intelligence combined with manic bouts of self-loathing, his habit of stilted, one-sided "conversations," and his mocking intolerance for anyone who doesn't agree with his grandiose theorizing, I think it's very safe to assume that Klosterman is not only talking about the worst parts of himself at the same time, but just in general about the aspects of Late Postmodernism that had most turned it into an eye-rolling parody of itself right at the popular height of Klosterman's early career.

Like I said, after Downtown Owl I had thought Klosterman incapable of career-redefining insights like these; so I'm glad to see that I was wrong, and now officially again look forward to his next books down the pike. Although definitely still with its problems, which is why it isn't getting a higher score today, A Visible Man has a lot to teach us about the ways our entire culture is changing here early in the Obamian Age, and it comes strongly recommended to one and all.

Out of 10: 9.1

Read even more about The Visible Man: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:44 AM, December 7, 2011. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |