Fargo Rock City aside, Chuck Klosterman’s work has generally consisted of riffing on whatever subject occupies his attention for as long as he feels like it. In that respect, Visible Man, his second novel, is closer to his essays than his previous stabs at fiction: The narrative framework is less compelling than the pop-cultural theorizing it includes. Unlike his first novel, Downtown Owl, which offered panoramic tales of a diverse sampling of midwestern small-town life, Visible Man has fewer characters: it’s a claustrophobic duet between an unnamed therapy patient with a strange secret and his incautiously curious therapist, mostly consisting of the man (referred to as “Y___.”) ranting.
The narrator is Austin shrink Victoria Vick, and the narrative is fragmented into different forms, opening with a letter from Vick to her editor, followed by email summaries of her initial sessions with Y___., transcripts of their sessions, and straight retrospective storytelling to fill in the gaps. No matter the format, Vick’s voice doesn’t dominate. She’s just a sounding board for Y___., who possesses a suit that essentially makes him invisible—though as he pedantically explains, “I was never invisible. I was always there. Jesus fucking Christ. Don’t you know how the human eye works?”
Y___. is smug, boastful, and abusive, which is pretty much the extent of his characterization. His therapy rants largely consist of anecdotal observations of people while he’s alone; his goal is to see humanity unselfconscious while on its own. His observed subjects are generally compelling and occasionally freaky, interspersed with characteristic asides and digressions whose tone is recognizably Klosterman’s, no matter who’s speaking. “This is why Facebook caught on with adults,” one woman announces, “it’s designed for people who want to publicize their children without our consent.” Similar sharp stray observations pepper the text, along with familiar reference points. (Rush, marijuana.)
Klosterman remains an enjoyably ranty writer; if anything, his language here is a little spryer and less off-puttingly self-regarding than in his last collection, Eating The Dinosaur, which teetered on the verge of self-parody. The Visible Man is a quick read and never too ponderous, even when the end—like Downtown Owl’s—spirals into nihilistic destruction. Still, it’s unclear why it’s a novel at all. The science-fiction framework does nothing to enhance its best bits, which could just as well be disconnected aphorisms and anecdotes.