RADIO PRODUCER AND WRITER
A man meets his co-workers at a bar after work, has a few beers, and drives home. He lives alone in a four bedroom house in the suburbs, and spends the whole night on his desk chair, at his computer, online. He plays a game, comments on blogs, watches YouTube videos, all the while writing the same email over and over again, to someone named Sarah. Every time he reaches a complete sentence, he deletes it, and immediately jumps to another window, distracting himself for a few minutes before returning to the email he cannot complete. Is this a true story? How do we know how people act once alone?
The only way to know would be to spy on him, undetected, waiting for him to believe that he is alone. That, Y_ believes, is his life’s work.
Y_ is the main character in Chuck Klosterman’s novel The Visible Man. Y_ is a pseudonym created by Vicky Vick, his therapist and the narrator of the book. The Visible Man starts out with a cover letter from Vick to an editor at a publishing house. Here is my manuscript, Vick writes. It is what I have pieced together from my therapy sessions with Y_.
Y_ has created an invisibility suit, which he uses to enter people’s homes and observe them alone. Highly articulate, charismatic, and misanthropic, Y_ spends most of the therapy sessions discussing his feeling on how people act when they are alone. You are never yourself, he says, until you are alone. You are never free until you are alone. You are never honest until you are alone.
The episodes of Y_’s encounters are vivid and compelling. These are the best parts of the book, where the walls of the therapist’s office melt away. A man sweats over an email he cannot finish; a woman exercises manically, gets high, then gorges on food.
John Gardner, the american novelist and legendary creative writing professor, wrote that the goal of a story is to create a vivid and continuous dream, to make the reader forget that he is reading words, and instead to be transported to the world created by the author. While the stories in The Visible Man are vivid, they are also snippets. They feel like formerly discarded ideas, resurrected. The dream is cut short; the stories end abruptly because their narrator walks away.
The book seems preoccupied with structure, addressing the how and why of storytelling. Vick begins a chapter with notes to the editor, explaining how she structured the chapter, either transcribing from a tape recorder or written from memory. Midway through the scene, the story is interrupted with more liner notes: she should have asked more questions, she should have reacted differently, she should have seen what was coming. The story becomes a constant interruption of scene as the narrator is preoccupied with structure.
The characters spend a lot of time and energy debating truth and fiction. At first Vicky does not believe the invisibility suit exists. Later, she does not believe his stories of home entry are true. Y_ challenges her, insisting his stories are true and insisting that the problem is that she does not believe, not that he is not telling the truth.
Why invest yourself in stories that are not real? It is a question that puzzles therapists and psychopaths and novelists alike. There is always a gap between who we are and the imaginary story of who we expect to be, says Vick. That is why most people go to therapy.
But if that is true, then Y_’s question remains: where do we find the true self? Alone? In the office of a therapist? Or writing a book: chronicling the past, discovering who you were back then; a you that can only be seen in retrospect, with clarity.