Therapist Victoria Vick has taken on a new client, Y___. He has a suit that renders him invisible, though he doesn’t like that term, and he uses the suit to watch people when they think they are alone. He feels guilt, but he also thinks that his guilt is illogical. So, he has come to Vick for therapy.
Why should Y___ feel guilt when his project of observing people is so important? Watching people who do not know they are being watched has become his life’s work, and there is no doubting Y___’s dedication to observing others. He has studied yoga to the point that he can remain still for hours at a time. Though careful to avoid addiction, Y___ takes stimulants so that he can maintain his surveillance for days if necessary. He has also devised numerous ways to get into people’s homes unobserved.
The central conflict in Chuck Klosterman’s The Visible Man is between Vick and Y___, but the most interesting parts of the novel are the unusual scenarios that Y___ finds himself in when he spies on people. Y___ discovers a support group for excessively competitive people at one point. In another account, he explains how one woman spends her life smoking pot, eating tons of food, and then running desperately to burn the calories. She repeats this cycle multiple times per day, every day.
These scenarios introduce what is perhaps the most interesting question in the novel: what are we when we are alone? It’s tempting to think we are more authentically ourselves when we are alone, but it is also hard to believe that the running/eating/toking woman is living her “truest” life when she engages in this cycle. Then again, it also seems hard to believe that she is happier at work, pretending to be whatever she thinks appears more “normal” than a woman that smokes pot until she gets the munchies and then runs to burn calories. Worse, what if we are most truly ourselves when we’re alone, but the patterns we fall into when by ourselves are just a human version of a computer’s screen saver program? While reading the novel, I began to look at people differently, often wondering what their screen saver programs might be.
Perhaps the questions of identity don’t matter, and what The Visible Man really feeds on is our love of gossip and speculation about the interior lives of others. Although Y___ claims that his suit allows him a unique perspective on people, the true appeal of the suit may be that it is thrilling to spy on people. Y___ is a creep, sure, but he also happens to have found a way to feel as powerful as the NSA or whatever algorithms Google uses to profile us. By reading about Y___’s adventures, we get to enjoy that same feeling.
The Visible Man is not the sort of novel that can be described as a “joy to read.” Its characters are not particularly likeable and their dialogue (monologue, really, since Y___ demands not to be interrupted) is often unconvincing. On the other hand, it provokes interesting questions, and I found myself thinking about this novel a great deal when I wasn’t reading it. Recommended.