Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Review: "Memoirs of an Invisible Man"

When Nick Halloway accompanies Anne Epstein to the MicroMagnetics lab, he isn't interested in either their cutting-edge research or on the anti-nuclear protesters demonstrating outside: only in a day out with a beautiful woman. It is only by the merest chance Nick is still inside the lab when the bomb goes off. But instead of being obliterated, Nick--as well as a small spherical chunk of New Jersey--is rendered invisible.

The novelty of being undetectable to the human eye quickly wears off. Ogling women unseen is one thing, but he can hardly show up to work and draw a paycheck these days. Procuring food is no longer as simple as walking out of a grocery store, bags in hand. Cars clip him at seemingly empty crosswalks.  And, of course, the shadowy government agency investigating the MicroMagnetics accident is very interested in talking to him.

Perhaps Nick shouldn't have lit the invisible lab on fire when he fled. Or shot one of the investigators with the invisible gun, however accidentally. Colonel Jenkins is convinced that Nick must be captured, for public safety as well as scientific inquiry. And unlike the rest of New York City, Jenkins and his people know what they're (not) looking for.


Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H.F. Saint (1987)
3 out of 5 stars 

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 2/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 3/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 1/5
Mental Engagement: 5/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: animal cruelty, sexual assault, misogyny
Overall Response: A creative thriller, if you can stomach the loathsome protagonist.


More Thoughts: Although H.F. Saint's Memoirs of an Invisible Man is not a good book, and deserves no more than the three stars I grant it, I recommend it to those looking for a fun and unusual thriller for the summer.

The reason why I can't rate the book any higher is a little because the author never abbreviates a conversation, no matter how boring (and you won't understand how much that means until he embarks on the third multi-page monologue about finances), and a lot because of its terrible protagonist.

If you thought Gone Girl's Nick Dunne was distasteful, well, you'll be well prepared for Nick Holloway.
"On the outside you're fine. You seem like a perfectly pleasant, mild-mannered, ineffectual, nice person. It's on the inside that you turn out to be not so nice at all."
I try to avoid books with generic narrators. Yet Nick Holloway surpasses sheer mediocrity, possessing zero redeeming qualities whatsoever. He is not complex, like an antagonist, or at least intriguingly amoral, like the better class of villains. He is only a self-centered, complacent pig of a man with neither self-awareness nor conscience. He says things like "the trouble with asking people for favors [is] you have to be civil." He lacks even the sense of humor that might mitigate his utter reprehensibility.

Stealing and defrauding the stock market are (I suppose) par for the invisible course when you can't hold down a day job. But it's only inefficiency, not moral compunction, which prevents Nick from murdering other characters who inconvenience him. On two different occasions, he molests a female character, once convincing a supernaturally-minded woman that he is an incubus, and once taking advantage of a dark room to force himself upon an intoxicated woman awaiting her lover. He glibly addresses the reader about these assaults, saying "We are not going to get into a discussion about the ethics of this," although he doubts "whether her consent could be described as informed."

The first-person narrative structure forces the reader to identify with Nick as the "hunted" figure of a frightening extending chase. If not for that, the reader would rather see Nick locked up and Jenkins' agents victorious. (They seem like decent folks, all in all.)

For some readers, the lack of an empathetic or admirable protagonist ruins the whole. I recommend the book to the rest, who will appreciate the twists and turns of this heist/fugitive novel on an intellectual level even as they choke down bile.

Saint has put a staggering amount of thought into the difficulties of an invisible life. The hundreds of tiny ways that Nick is endangered, or ordinary life rendered abruptly impossible, keep the reader engaged in his survival. Thinking up creative solutions alongside him is a fun brain puzzle (find a grocery store that delivers!) Other insights into how little we pay attention to the world around us keep ticking in my mind, years after the first time I read the book.

It's frightening, too, realizing how dedicated the government agency is to finding Nick--and how good they are at their task. Because while Nick has been working only for his own survival, figuring out what works, they have nothing to do but think up ways to detect--and to trap--an invisible fugitive who is, frankly, armed and dangerous. The scene where they surround his known hiding place with raked sand, so that his footprints will be unavoidably obvious, gives me shivers.

Some of the greatest scenes in the novel are the conversations Nick has with his frustrated pursuers. While few of us would readily embrace a life as a research specimen, one has to sympathize with Jenkins and his people. Perhaps by accident, Saint makes them easy to sympathize with, despite the frequent comparisons of Jenkins to a reptile. Or maybe any sign of camaraderie and gentleness is overwhelmingly welcome, after being subjected to Nick's back-of-the-fridge-mold brain.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is entertaining as a mental exercise rather than comic or emotionally engaging. With a different protagonist, it might have been genuinely enjoyable. Whether H.F. Saint could have produced a better hero is left in doubt, though, as he wrote no other books. I'll take this one for the summer read that it is.

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