Invisibility is among the most alluring superpowers one could possess. What would you do if you could become invisible, even for just a day? Rob a bank? Attend concerts for free? Play pranks on your friends? Watch celebrities have sex? These are some common answers, but in his new novel The Visible Man, Chuck Klosterman takes a different direction with this eternal hypothetical.

The Visible Man is Klosterman’s second novel (after Downtown Owl, 2008), but longtime readers will recognize its similarities to his nonfiction work. The epistolary novel reads as creative nonfiction, but not in the same fashion as Truman Capote’s influential In Cold Blood; where Capote set out to tell a true story using his elegant prose to form a novel, The Visible Man feels like a fictional extension of Klosterman’s “Through a Glass Blindly,” an essay from his 2009 collection Eating the Dinosaur examining voyeurism.

For this book Klosterman has begun with the notion that a person is only ever his “true” self when  completely alone. We’re constantly acting, dressing, and speaking in specific, archetypal ways to allow others to identify us as a certain type of person. This has become exceptionally true in this digital culture via online personae: We’re incessantly constructing our “personal brand” on Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to sell ourselves as likable, attractive, unique (but not too unique) people. A paradox of reality vs. perception, in which we can ask ourselves who we really are.

“Unseen lives are the only ones that matter,” says Y_____, the novel’s protagonist, to his therapist in an attempt to explain his ongoing studies in behavioral science. The Visible Man is structured as the first draft of a manuscript written by therapist Victoria Vick chronicling her sessions with Y_____, an extraordinary patient with the ability to become invisible (he is referred to as Y_____ in an attempt to protect his identity.) As a gifted scientist Y_____ developed a suit for the U.S. military that renders its wearer invisible through a delicate combination of light refraction and manipulation. Y_____, however, found a non-militaristic purpose for the suit. He goes on to explain that he “Started to wonder: How could I learn the truths that weren’t visible? What was I missing? What was everyone missing? I became obsessed by these questions, so I started to follow people.”

Y_____ contends that he follows and observes people out of a respect for science and does not consider himself a voyeur; voyeurs get off on their actions, Y_____ uses his examinations to further our knowledge of human behavior. “The only essential purpose of science is to define consciousness. To define reality.” And this is where Klosterman the essayist seems to be speaking for himself: “I know I overuse that word, but it’s the only word for what I’m interested in: reality.” (Klosterman’s essays investigate the notion of perception vs. reality, generally through the lens of pop culture.)

What we learn through Y_____’s studies is that, when left alone, people are much more fascinating than the persona they’ve crafted for their peers. The first person that Y_____ observes, a regular suburban teenager, leads him to this conclusion. Of the teenager Y_____ explains, “He was doing nothing, but he was doing it for real. No pretense. No self-awareness. I was seeing him as he really was… He did care about Rush. He loved Rush. It must have been more important to him than all of the things he pretended to adore in public. Because that was the music he played when he was by himself.” This simple observation rings true; are the songs you most love found on the iTunes playlists you create which you know other people will be hearing (read: judging)? Probably not. These are the bits of reality that Klosterman, through Y_____, is trying to understand.

Though deeply fascinated by her patient, Victoria begins to worry about the morality of Y_____’s actions. His invasiveness is one thing, but his complete lack of empathy is another entirely. Victoria is deeply concerned when Y_____ describes the life of Valerie, a young woman he has observed for a few weeks. Due to Valerie’s obsession with her appearance she became addicted to working out. “Here was a single woman with no obligations, but with a life devoid of freedom. She didn’t even understand what freedom meant. There are convicted murderers with more freedom than Valerie.” Breaking his own rule about interfering with his “subjects,” Y_____ takes to drastic measures to help improve Valerie’s situation.

Most compelling in The Visible Man is Victoria’s struggle between wanting to learn as much as possible about Y_____’s discoveries and the personal anxiety she feels from her mounting self-awareness. The more she seems to comprehend the nature of perception and self-awareness, the more self-conscious and cynical she feels. It’s this struggle that will keep the reader thinking long after completing the book. For this reason, along with the his masterfully descriptive storytelling, Klosterman has scored another success with The Visible Man. At least, I perceive it to be a success.

Simon & Schuster Canada, 240 pp.

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