eMusic Q&A: Chuck Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman was inspired to write his second novel, The Visible Man, after reading H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, and marveling over what a jerk the main character was. Intrigued by the idea of testing an invisible character’s limits in a modern context, Klosterman found his own jerk in Y, a man whose background in cloaking technology enables him to create a suit that prevents the “subjects” he “researches” from seeing him. Entering a person’s house for the purposes of observing them is generally considered stalking, but Y sees himself as an altruistic scientist gathering important information about the habits of humans in solitude. The novel, narrated by Y’s therapist, is primarily one of ideas — Klosterman doesn’t relate to his own characters, and he hopes you don’t, either.
eMusic’s Jess Sauer spoke with Klosterman about the appeal of writing about jerks, whether God wants you to listen to Rush, and what he’d do if he were invisible.
You’ve spoken a lot about how The Invisible Man inspired The Visible Man, because upon reading it, you were interested in how jerky the main character was. What’s the appeal for you in writing about a jerk? What kind of liberties can you take when writing from the perspective of a jerk? Or, more than a jerk, a psychopath?
That probably has more to do with the fact that when I read books, or I watch movies or television shows, I tend to find unlikable characters the most comedic. I always think that when you see a character do something that’s appalling, but also somewhat predictable when you look at their character, that’s always somewhat funny to me. Also, it’s a little bit like a video game, I feel. Say you play a video game like Grand Theft Auto. Everybody’s first experiment, typically, with a new video game, is to try to have the character break the game. Go places that you can’t go, try to hit random people, see what the parameters are on how much damage you can do. Can you crash the car, et cetera. Then, after that period, you play the game. The first thing you want to do is test the limits of the game. I think when you make up a character in a novel, one thing that I kind of enjoy to do is first seeing what the creative limits to this reality are. People who tend to break the limits of reality tend to be bad people, or Evel Knievel.
You’ve said you can’t really imagine readers relating to either Vicky or Y, the characters in Visible Man. I saw Jonathan Franzen give a talk a couple of weeks ago, and he was talking about the importance of loving your characters, and I asked whether that was distinct from liking them, and whether liking them was less important than loving them. For you, is relating to your characters important?
First of all, my relationship to books as a reader might be slightly different than the typical novelist’s reaction to books. What I mean by that is I never disappear into a story. If I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I never think to myself, “I’m in Narnia now!” There’s always an intellectual distance, because when I read things, I’m interested in ideas. If somebody said, “There are two novels you can read: One has these rich characters and amazing plot mechanics, and you’ll really enjoy the experience of reading it, or you can read this book where it’s really about going after this one idea, the dissection of one meaningful idea,” I would probably take the second book.
So I don’t feel like loving my characters. Sure, it’s nice to say that. That’s what a writer’s supposed to say — that they love these characters. There’s just no way that I’m ever going to feel like an imaginary person is a lovable reality. I’m just not like that. I just want my characters to be interesting. I want to be interested in them, and what they’re doing, and what they’re thinking. If I write a book and at the end of it, one of the characters dies, I’m not gonna cry. I’ve heard authors say that, that they have cried about things that have happened to the characters that they’ve created, which to me seems a little weird, and actually very egocentric, that they could somehow feel that this person they made up is so real to them that it taps into the emotions you feel toward actual beings.
That points to the fact that The Visible Man is in many ways a thought experiment. It reminded me of the “Flight versus Invisibility” episode of This American Life. One interesting outcome of that question was that everyone who wanted invisibility as their super power had nefarious purposes in mind, and that it didn’t occur to anybody to use it for heroic or even beneficial purpose. Vicky asks Y if it ever occurs to him to use his invisibility to be heroic, and he says it would never occur to him to be a hero in that way. I’m interested in the idea of invisibility as removing the responsibility of being a bystander.
Yeah. That This American Life [episode] was done by John Hodgman, and one thing about the way people answer that question, is just sort of the nature of dealing with the hypothetical. If someone says to you, “Hey, I’m going to give you this interesting power: You no longer have to sleep. You’ll never have to sleep again, and you’ll feel fine,” it’s very rare that a person would hear that and go, “Great! I can now do more volunteering!” The first thing they think about is, “How can this benefit me?” in a very direct way.
In this book, the character is trying to convince his therapist that he’s not doing that; that he has this power, and he actually is using it for an altruistic, scientific purpose to help people understand human nature, but he is confused about life. If I really had the ability to be invisible — people always want to know when you write a book like this — I guess I would be a little interested in, well, my wife and I have a lot of friends in couples, and it would be interesting to watch their fights. It’d be interesting to see if their fights are unique or normative, or if all fights are the same. It would be ultimately to understand my own life, rather than the voyeuristic nature of the experience.
The Visible Man is a lot about what people do when alone. Y actually develops cloaking technology in order to be invisible with other people, but another theme in the book is that the only time you are really yourself is when you’re invisible to the extent that other people aren’t witnessing you, and the idea that most people need to be witnessed by others in order to feel real. It’s kind of a buzzy word right now, spectatoring, the idea that social media has created this “pics or it didn’t happen” idea that if you have an experience that is unwitnessed by others, it no longer has value.
Yeah, that’s definitely half of it. The other half, I would say, the word I would use is self-editing. How much of someone’s personality is actually the manifestation of them thinking about themselves and then performing as the character they believe that they are, or that they want other people to see. On the one hand, you have the need to have everything validated by other people seeing it happen, and then the other side of that is trying to create who you are, as opposed to being the person that your nature suggests.
There’s also the fact that, despite Y feeling most authentic when he’s by himself, it doesn’t really matter whether there’s actually another person there to witness your behavior, because people have the hypothetical witness. Even in solitude, some people behave with regard to what other people would be thinking if they could see them when they were by themselves. For instance, what people read when they’re alone. There are people who really would never allow themselves to read a guilty pleasure, or to listen to Rush, even when alone, because the idea of what other people would think is so powerful to them.
Well, yeah. Okay, I can’t totally relate to that, but I suppose that’s true. There are some people who even act differently alone because they can’t stop themselves from imagining being seen. I would say, to me, somebody who has that quality, somebody who reads this and is like, “I relate to this. I will not do things I want to do by myself because I don’t like the idea of how it would be perceived if somebody was there,” I would actually say that’s a mild form of psychosis. I would say that that’s an extension of mental illness, because that would mean that that person no longer would have the ability to have free will, even in their moments of freedom. Which, you know, I suppose philosophically you could argue is the case for everyone, if you believe free will doesn’t exist. I’m using free will in the sense of being able to do what you want.
When you think about it, though, the idea of an omniscient or omnipresent deity does actually inspire the private behavior of religious people, or implies that even in solitude, people are supposed to behave as though they’re being watched at all times.
That’s true. You know, there are many different ways to think about a higher power, but to me it’s hard to imagine a God who doesn’t want people listening to Rush. Like, I can’t imagine what kind of jerk God would have to be to look at a guy listening to Rush and be like, “That dude is not cool.”
I know that Y doesn’t like explaining the science behind his suit to Vicky because he doesn’t believe she’ll understand it. I’ve done some cursory Googling into cloaking, and I know metamaterials are a real thing. I’m not even going to try paraphrasing, because my knowledge of it is very basic. How important was it to you that this cloaking device be at least hypothetically scientifically possible?
Good question. You know, the closest model I had in my mind for the explanation of invisibility was actually Being John Malkovich. Because, in Being John Malkovich, the premise is insane: There’s a doorway into John Malkovich’s mind. What happens in that film is that they sort of comedically and very superficially describe what’s going on, and then immediately move on to what it represents, the larger idea. That’s what I was thinking: I’m not a scientist, and true invisibility is impossible, so what I need to do here is use enough language and abstraction to get to a point where the character is like, “It’s stupid that we’re still talking about this. Let’s talk about what it means.”
It’s interesting that you bring up Being John Malkovich, because for instance, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman springboards off of something that is kind of real, scientifically. Like, they actually can erase specific memories, like they do in Eternal Sunshine, and Cotard delusion is a real thing.
Yeah, what he does, basically, or what he seems to do, is that he’ll hear something about the ability to erase memory, and he will place it in the most extreme, and also the most day-to-day context. So he’s like, “What if you could erase memory with a pill? How would that application be?” It’s kind of like that in this book, too. I was sort of like, “OK, cloaking seems like something that would have the possibility to exist, so let’s just say it does exist. Let’s say that just this one guy has it. What would happen then?”
So I’m interested in what I guess would be called the anthropology of solitude, and what your interest is in that, especially with reference to the consumption of media.
Yeah, it’s all connected. I mean, if someone were to ask me, “What is the central question of the time period we’re living in right now?” I would say it’s the question of what is reality, which in some ways is a question that people stop thinking about when they reach the age of 20, or whatever. It seems sort of a like a high school stoner problem, but I’ve never stopped thinking about it, and it’s important to everything I write, because there are two things an acceleration of media does: It increases the amount of information, and it widens the gap between reality and constructed reality. It’s that second part of the equation that I find really intriguing. A lot of the books and movies I like to read and watch deal with this question.
So one of the consequences of that is that, while people have always maybe viewed themselves as the main character in a novel about themselves — natural human nature is to see our life like that, from a fixed perspective — I think that the acceleration of media has totally pushed that to an absurd extreme. You talked earlier about people who think about themselves as being watched, even when they’re alone. That partially could be because the way we think about ourselves now has more to do with how we’ve seen other lives depicted through media. That’s part of it. In this book, sometimes the Y character and the therapist will make allusions to whether or not their interaction is like reality television, and obviously this is something I’ve been thinking about for 10 years, because I’ve written about it a ton.