Memoirs of an Invisible Man
HF Saint, 1987

Securities analyst Nick Halloway is caught in an explosion at an eccentric scientist's lab which turns the entire building — including Nick, the only survivor — invisible. After escaping from government agents who will likely make a guinea pig out of him, Nick has to use his wits to somehow survive in New York City without revealing his whereabouts to the agents or his existence to anyone else.

Evaluation and commentary
In 1992, Memoirs of an Invisible Man was made into a movie starring Chevy Chase. By all accounts, it was awful. I haven't seen it. But one summer afternoon a year later, I was in the Canyon Hills Library looking for something to read when I randomly happened across this book and decided to try the first few pages. To my surprise they were really entertaining, so I sat down and read more. Then the library closed. So I came back the next day and read the rest. It's really very entertaining.

The main thing I like it for is that it is the opposite of what Roger Ebert said about the movie: "lazy and conventional." The conventional part I won't argue just now. But lazy? No way. Like I said when I first mentioned this book a few months ago, what's great about it is that it takes its premise and really digs into exactly how a securities analyst in New York City circa 1987 would live from moment to moment were he to turn invisible. There is no aspect of this topic Saint hasn't thought of, be it constructing a diet that will turn one into a walking esophagus for the shortest period of time or determining exactly which sort of stock options one can most profit from without any initial capital to invest and without attracting attention (October forty-fives at the market, it turns out). A couple of times Nick says that his life as an invisible man has no grand sweep to it but is just a matter of solving an endless series of small immediate problems. Even to the extent this is true, watching him solve those problems is never less than absorbing.

Saint has also thought about the type of protagonist it would take to make this story work: someone with no one to rely on, so he's really on his own when he goes on the run, and yet not a social outcast... a shallow yuppie, with lots of contacts and no friends. (Sort of like the guy in Level 7.) The government agent pursuing him grumbles that he has "no strong emotional ties, no political beliefs, no particular interests of any sort. You can't find a handhold." Another acquaintance declares, "I defy anyone to name an interesting fact about Nick. That's pretty much the whole point of Nick." You might think that it would be dreary reading about a shallow yuppie for four hundred pages, but Saint pulls it off. Part of the reason that it works is that Nick is actually pretty funny. Before becoming invisible, he tells a woman that he's a sensitive soul hiding behind the exterior of a clown; she replies that he has the exterior of a banker and the interior of a clown, and that is just about right. (My favorite line is when he's encouraging the government agents to think he's a political radical to throw them off track: "'All power to the people, is my feeling.' What exactly did these people believe? 'From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs,' I tried. I rejected 'property is theft' as too strident and 'I like Ike' as inappropriate.")

But the other reason it works is that Nick may be a shallow yuppie, but he's a shallow yuppie whom Saint understands extremely well. In fact, I'm ready to take on the "conventional" charge now. In a conventional story, Nick would learn that because he was so shallow, he was already sort of an invisible man before the accident, slipping through life leaving no mark on anything; he would see the meaninglessness of the yuppie world and commit himself to becoming a better person. OR the story wouldn't address these themes at all. But Saint takes a subtler course. Nick, no longer able to participate in the world of 1980s yuppie Manhattan, views it from the perspective of an outsider for the first time, and does have insights about it... but they are still the insights of a shallow yuppie, because ultimately that's who he is. He overhears people mocking him, not knowing he's standing, invisible, five feet away, and instead of getting angry, he gets nostalgic, wishing he could engage in cocktail party chatter with its sly putdowns of absent acquaintances.

So when Ebert says that the non-lazy and non-conventional "material is intriguing enough that I wish there had been more of it," I am frustrated on Saint's behalf. There was four hundred pages of it.

Recently people on the MUD were talking about their reading habits and Dan Shiovitz mentioned that he reads four to five books a week. I found this pretty astounding, and he explained that he spends a lot of time on the bus and so plows through an entire book on a typical day's commute. But reading the conversation as it unfolded, what jumped out at me was the type of books the fast readers were reading: for the most part, it was light entertainment, aspiring to do nothing more than help the reader pass the time.

I don't really read for light entertainment. I read stuff either because I'm interested in exploring the body of work surrounding an author or topic (Mark Twain, nuclear war, William Sleator) or because I'm hoping that the book will have some kind of artistic merit. The same goes for movies — quite a few times recently I have been invited to go see a movie, and when I've asked which one, been told, "I dunno, whatever's playing." This mindset is alien to me. I watch a small handful of movies per year and so for a film to make my to-watch list I have to have some reason to think it might make my list of favorites, whether that be because of the director's previous work or because of a review by Vern. So what do I do for light entertainment? I actually don't know! I guess Scary Go Round counts, but that's 30 seconds a day. I've pretty much stopped following superhero comics. Does go count? It's a game, but it's pretty cerebral.

Anyway, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is the exception. Even though it's pretty good on theme and character, ultimately I have to say that it's light entertainment and not literature because it's primarily about the suspense of discovering whether and how Nick will get out of his latest scrape. It's the prose equivalent of an IF piece that's "more game than story." But it's so superbly done that it troubles the boundaries between mere diversion and actual art.

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