One of my greatest personal fascinations is the concept of perspective. Personal perspective. Perception. The way we view the world, and ourselves in it. Point of view. And how the overlapping perceptions of and with others influence that perception. I think that’s why I was destined to love The Visible Man by Chuck Klosterman.
I don’t know what I can share of the premise without ruining it. It’s a fascinating concept. I don’t think it would reveal too much to say that it is in the setting of a psychologist and her patient. The story comes out in her session notes, journal, and other related materials. Don’t be distracted by how strange some of the material is; fascinating themes and thoughts lie within.
Speaking of perspective specifically, there is one point in the story where the main character describes his realization of self, or thinks he does:
I would play by myself, alone in my bedroom…doing childish things in a childish way. I wasn’t abnormal, but I’d inevitably find myself thinking difficult thoughts. I’d think, “You know, this is really who I am. Right now, right here. This is me. And this is the only time I’m me.” With my parents, around other kids, sitting in a pew at church, sitting in my desk at school–in all those situations, I was someone else. I was a version of myself, but not the actual me. I understood the separation before I understood anything else. I understood this before I had the language to explain it to other people, or even to my own consciousness. p. 30.
This comes in in a larger context of certain behaviors he exhibits, and I don’t exhibit those same behaviors, but can poignantly recall various startlingly similar periods of self-recognition. He doesn’t stop here, though. In fact, as the story progresses, it sort of challenges the elementary understanding that we are only our true self, or a most true self, when completely alone, outside the perceptions or expectations of others. Maybe there is no truth in this at all. Maybe the me I am at church, or at work, out with guy friends, out with my wife, alone with my kids, is no more or less the real “me” than when completely alone, without anyone to see or perceive or project. Maybe.
Later in the story, the main character describes a man he observes as having “that sad, distant stare of a man who missed college too much.” p. 58. I know someone else who would fit that description.
There is a whole section where he describes two “older” guys (I don’t think he specifies an exact age, but there is a “just past their prime” aura to them, late 30s to early 40s, probably). They are playing basketball. One on one. Full court. I will spare you all the details, and all my personal insights, or the impact reading this section had on me, as a man who likes to think he can play basketball nearing that age and stage, and all the corresponding concerns/implications. But just generally, I will say, there are some fascinating insights into the human condition and what can be gained through simple/subtle (and sometimes not so simple/subtle) observation.
There were insights about parents in the 70s-80s, who for some reason felt compelled to tell their kids: “You’re amazing, you can do anything you want, you’re a special person.” My parents certainly did. There seem to be varying views on the impact this has. I don’t know what the alternative is. Would I have turned out better if they would have told me “You’re awful, you can’t do anything, you suck as a person”? I don’t think so. Interesting though.
Also there were insights on happiness. And whether it is possible to be happy when alone. The main character indicated that he had observed people who were really happy alone, which he always found “a little beautiful, but also a little confusing.” pp. 156-157. Because the people who seemed happiest were “consumers.” Not the people who read the best books or had the most hobbies. It was the people who bought the most stuff. Which makes sense, in a sad way, in our consumer culture.
He went on to combine the two, stating that “[t]he central mistake parents make is telling their kids that making money is not as important as being happy, as if those two things are somehow opposed or disconnected. Movies and TV perpetuate that sentiment, because it makes for counterintuitive plots and happier endings. What parents should tell their kids is that these things are connected. They should tell them that the single easiest way to be happy is to make a sh*#load of money.” p. 157. So much for money can’t buy you happiness! The author is being sort of tongue in cheek here, through the character (and he is a character, this is a work of fiction), but also sort of not. He’s not exactly wrong.
There were insights about TV, how it is a form of one-way entertainment, and how that is how people want it. Because they can be involved, have relationships, have control, without any corresponding burden on themselves. Here again, sad but true.
This may all sound very heavy. And as subject matter, yes maybe. But what I have failed to convey so far, probably, is that it was hilarious. Tragic. Gross at times. But again, fascinating, deep, philosophical insights on the human condition, consciousness, self, existentialism, perspective, the unobserved life, the observed life, happiness, passion, loneliness, personhood. And voyeurism. All in a fun, intelligent, unique story. One of the best, most thought-provoking, entertaining books I have read in a while.
I read his Eating the Dinosaur several years ago, and remember liking it. I have been on the waiting list for 1 of 5 copies of his Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs at the library for about 2 years straight now. Some day!
Anyone else read or enjoyed any Klosterman? Let’s discuss.