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Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint - Sci-Fi Classic Review

Memoirs of an Invisible Man

In the mid-eighties, a New York businessman named H.F. Saint updated H.G. Wells for the modern era with the novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man, the tale of another New York businessman, one who happens to fall victim to an inexplicable industrial accident that leaves him completely invisible. The novel was successful enough that Saint was essentially able to retire from writing after his first and only published work, and it remains second only to the classic The Invisible Man in terms of definitive novels about someone turning invisible.

It borrows quite heavily from Wells in a few important ways, in that the protagonist, Nicholas Halloway, is much like Griffin, pretty much a bastard before anything happens to him. He tries to live a solitary life, and the mechanics of his invisibility are almost identical to those described by Wells. The book even references the original novel a few times, most obviously in a sequence where Halloway dresses up in bandages and dark glasses like Claude Rains.

However, it's in how the two stories differ that is more interesting. Saint's story tries to show the downsides to invisibility and makes a compelling case that its mythical powers that would supposedly corrupt even the most incorruptable are greatly exaggerated. Halloway's experiences with invisibility are more of a consistent problem than a benefit, and the story does a good job making it clear that a life of invisibility is far less fun and empowering than you might imagine.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man
A good visualization of the introduction

For the most part, Halloway spends his time running from the authorities, as represented by the shady government official David Jenkins and his team of spies, who mercilessly hunt him throughout New York City. Jenkins wants to either experiment on him or recruit him as a super-spy, while Halloway only wants to maintain his freedom. The setting is also a major shake-up, as it is much harder for Halloway to sneak around and live in peace when he's in a big city rather than in a rural countryside town. No doubt one of the novel's big strengths is in describing the lengths Halloway must go through in order to find a safe place to stay, get his meals, and make a living, all without being seen.

Halloway's journey is, unlike Griffin's, ultimately a redemptive one. Despite committing a couple of unsavory and unforgivable acts--most notably raping a woman at a party, in a chapter the novel would be better off without--he chooses in the end to settle down for his happily ever after with the woman he loves, proving himself to be better in the end than the man he is at the start. That said, it's hard to really relate to him. Saint infuses him with a sardonic sense of humor that carries readers through, but from the beginning to the end, Halloway is a deeply flawed anti-hero who makes several questionable decisions, and one can't really root for him without feeling a little guilty for it.

Thus, while it is an engaging read that acts as an interesting rebuttal to the classical assumptions about invisibility, Memoirs of an Invisible Man isn't devoid of some pretty significant problems. Primary among these are its length and meandering plot. For most of the story, it's unclear where things are going, as Halloway's motivations boil down to little more than survival. Even his conflict with Jenkins, which appears to be the primary source of dramatic tension, is an intermittent plot thread, often dropping deep into the background to be all but forgotten about. The thing that ultimately proves to be his redemption--the character of Alice--isn't even introduced until eighty percent of the way through the story, making her more of a deus ex machina than an organic element of the story.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man
This makes it look like Halloway is a fifties greaser

Saint also gets occasionally bogged down by the minutiae of business, as Halloway opens a brokerage account, plays the stock market, secures a lawyer, etc. This is, of course, what Halloway would do, but it gets mind-numbingly tedious in places, something no doubt interesting to Saint and his fellow New York financial players, but not to general audiences. Saint often chooses covering the details rather than progressing the plot, which gets more and more frustrating the further into the story you get. In short, he needed an editor.

This is still a worth-while read deserving of the label "classic," however. The sci-fi mechanics of invisibility feel far more real here than anywhere else (although I rush to point out that even Saint can't acknowledge that you would immediately go blind without visible eyeballs), and the parable/analogy of a man discovering how trite and meaningless a life he'd been living works great in the big city setting. As a companion piece to Wells' classic novel, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a fun and entertaining successor.

Next week, we'll finally wrap up all this talk of invisibility with a review of the 1992 film adaptation of Saint's novel, starring Chevy Chase and Darryl Hannah. Does the film adaptation streamline out the novel's flaws, or was Chevy Chase's attempt to steer his career in a more serious direction by creating a romantic thriller with John Carpenter deeply misguided? Check back here on Halloween to find out what I think!

-e. magill 10/24/2019

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