Over the past decade, Chuck Klosterman's five books of cultural criticism have earned a huge and devoted following — and a much smaller (though no less vocal) band of haters who feel he's biggest douchebag in the world.
As the biggest douchebag in the world, I naturally resent Klosterman. Then again, I have a hard time holding a grudge against a guy who refers to his own work as "philosophy for shallow people."
Also, over the past couple of years, Klosterman has started writing novels — surprisingly good ones. I say "surprisingly" because it's always a dicey proposition when an essayist with such a distinct voice and range of concerns tries to create a fictional world. But his debut novel, Downtown Owl, was a vibrant and moving examination of small-town life in his native North Dakota. He placed his witty cerebrations firmly in the service of his characters.
Klosterman arrives in town Saturday, to read at the Boston Book Festival from his odd and ambitious new novel, The Visible Man, which chronicles the thorny relationship between a therapist and her most unusual patient, a man who claims to be able to make himself invisible.
I COULD SEE THE ROOTS OF DOWNTOWN OWL IN YOUR OWN HISTORY. THE VISIBLE MAN FEELS LIKE MUCH MORE OF A DEPARTURE. WHAT WAS THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA? A lot of it was re-reading [HG Wells's] The Invisible Man, which I hadn't read since, like, fifth or sixth grade. The biggest thing that was different, that I had not remembered at all, was that invisible man was just a fucking jerk! He was just this incredibly, self-absorbed, obnoxious person. But that made so much sense that the kind of person who would be interested in having the power of invisibility would have to be sort of an arrogant person who also is very intelligent but sort of has a skewed view of how the world really works. I guess I'm always thinking about the reality of who people are. I'm a journalist and you are too, so we spend a lot of time interviewing people. And the more you do that, especially the more you get interviewed, you realize the kind of inherent impossibility of getting any sort of reality from that.
PEOPLE DO CONSTRUCT THEIR PUBLIC IDENTITIES. BUT I DON'T THINK IT'S FRUITLESS TO TRY TO INTERVIEW PEOPLE OR TO HAVE THEM IN A THERAPEUTIC SETTING, BECAUSE PEOPLE, AT THE SAME TIME AS THEY MIGHT BE TRYING TO PROVIDE ADVERTISEMENTS FOR THEMSELVES, ALSO INEVITABLY, AS PART OF THE HUMAN ARRANGEMENT, REVEAL WHO THEY ARE. To me interviewing is like, you know, democracy. There's all these problems, but it's better than the other alternatives. So the way the book unspools is that the main character is arguing that the only way to understand people is to watch them when they're alone. But in truth, the way we find out about what a person is like is through what they say. So his therapy is actually just an extremely long interview. Part of the reason that I write fiction is because I can have a character put forth an idea that I find interesting even if I don't necessarily agree with it in totality.