Memoirs of an Invisible Man

by H.F. Saint

Cover image

Publisher: Dell
Copyright: 1987
Printing: July 1988
ISBN: 0-440-20122-5
Format: Mass market
Pages: 458

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Nick Halloway is a Wall Street securities analyst specializing in energy stocks and trying very hard to seduce a reporter for the Times. That seems to be about the limit of his personal aspirations at the start of this book: he has a high-paying finance job, and he's finally managing to get a particularly elusive woman to possibly sleep with him (there's a moderately graphic scene at the start of the book). But a pretense for getting away with Anne, an evaluation of a Princeton high-tech lab that was supposedly working on magnetic containment for nuclear fusion, is complicated by a protest that Nick has no patience for but which Anne supports. He ends up staying hidden inside the building, nursing a hangover and inadequate sleep, while it's evacuated by what he thinks is a fire drill. When something strange happens to the equipment cobbled together by a highly eccentric scientist, he's within the radius of an event that kills the scientist and leaves himself and everything in the building completely invisible.

This is hardly the first time this story has been written in SF. H.G. Wells was one of the first, with The Invisible Man, and Memoirs of an Invisible Man is clearly written with Wells as inspiration. Saint provides the reader ample clues that he's very familiar with the original: an invisible cat along with Nick, a fire to cover his tracks (although Saint adds more complications and motives for the fire), the surprising difficulty of surviving invisible, and even the visibility of food in his stomach before it's digested. (Saint makes rather more of how disgusting this looks than Wells does.)

But Saint does much more than update the story for a modern setting. For one, Nick is not the scientist, and Saint removes the scientist and most hope of reversing the process early in the story. He's just some guy who gets caught in a unique accident. And, second, the antagonist in this story is not Nick, but rather a secret black ops branch of the US government, which desperately wants take possession of both Nick and everything else made invisible in the accident to understand and use what happened. Most of this book is an extended chase as Nick not only has to learn how to survive and find food and shelter, but also has to hide his existence from the world and his location from very persistent and sophisticated pursuers.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a somewhat odd book. It has a clearly SFnal premise, but the plot (government black ops, secret chases through city streets, personal antagonism between a creative and flexible protagonist and a doggedly determined hunter) is all thriller. But, unlike a thriller, Saint doesn't just use the SFnal idea as a MacGuffin or as an initial plot impetus and then discard it. The whole book is a detailed examination of exactly what it would be like to live in New York invisible, according to the precise definition of invisibility that Saint sets up. This definition makes essentially no scientific sense, but Saint wisely never really tries to explain it. Other than that one required point of suspension of disbelief and all of its associated, somewhat arbitrary rules, Saint tries to both play the effects straight and extrapolate as many specific details as he can. That's a storytelling approach much more closely associated with science fiction than thrillers.

This book is also incredibly detailed. Saint is trying to embed the reader fully in the situation, and he does that by describing every moment explicitly and as completely as he can. I can see why this was turned into a movie, although the movie necessarily had to be greatly abbreviated as there's way more material here than one could possibly film. Saint provides a lot of very specific information to build a visualization with. This is also probably it's largest drawback: while a lot of that detail is surprisingly interesting, not all of it is, and there were a few times when I wished Saint would get on with it already rather than describing yet one more thing. It takes 58 pages to get to the accident and another 75 pages just to get out of the accident site, and the printing of this book I read had very small print.

The genius of this book, though, is Nick. Rarely have I seen a protagonist more perfectly designed for a story, or a story carried this successfully on such a small base of motives. Saint achieves an elegant simplicity of characterization that's delightful to read. Most protagonists in books I read are a welter of conflicting motivations to better simulate the complexity of people, or fall firmly into a typical heroic mode. Nick is not at all heroic, and doesn't even start the book with much motivational complexity, but he knows very quickly after the accident that he has no desire to become a guinea pig in a lab. That's his motivation, particluarly once Saint knocks him a few levels down Maslow's pyramid, and he acts on it doggedly and persistently throughout the book.

Usually a character with that simple of motives would be an empty spot into which the reader is intended to insert themselves, but Nick isn't that either. He's the first-person protagonist, he comes across as a complete and separate person from the reader, and we get to know him well enough to decide that he's not that likeable of a guy. Or, put another way, he's a self-centered ass. And yet, the conflict of the book is so stark, Nick's motivation is so simple and obvious, and the way he goes about it is so ingenious that the reader is won over completely. This is one of those subtle and simple things that's hard to notice because the brilliance of it is how well it gets out of the way of the story and lets the reader enjoy the action and suspense, but it's much harder than it looks to pull off.

It helps that Saint is a talented descriptive writer in spots. Most of the book is straight, clear, but unmemorable description, but Saint has a subtle, ironic, and mocking tone that surfaces unexpectedly.

"Not at all. Not at all. That's a very sensible question." His voice was a good octave deeper. "I think I can say that my clients are pleased with whatever role I have been able to play in their investment programs."

In a way, these people are telling the truth when they say this sort of thing. The clients who are still with a given broker at a given moment in time are invariably people who either happen to be ahead so far or else don't open their mail.

A more succinct description of survivorship bias would be hard to find. It helps my enjoyment of this book immensely that Saint needles (or skewers) the financial industry throughout the story.

He also has an occasional knack for visual description:

Behind the desk sat a woman in her forties whose natural expression of truculent dissatisfaction had been highlighted with the careful application of great quantities of makeup.

As one can probably tell from both excerpts, Saint's writing does lack a bit of polish. There are a lot of extraneous words in this book, which sometimes robs it of punch and immediacy (although sometimes lets a particularly apt description sneak up on the reader). Some careful line-by-line editing probably could have tightened and shrunk it. But Saint's observational talent still shines through, even when he's taking not-entirely-deserved pot-shots at liberal journalists.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is one of those singleton creations that stands oddly apart. It's H.F. Saint's first published novel, is deeply influenced with and in conversation with genre (via Wells) but isn't really a genre novel, has thriller structure without being a thriller, and is a mainstream description of life in New York except with a significant fantastic twist. It seems likely to continue to be a singleton, as Saint made enough money off the book and the resulting movie to retire in Europe and is apparently uninterested in a writer's life. I can see why Hollywood grabbed it, but the book is (as they usually are) considerably better and more thoughtful than the film. Even the romance worked for me, which is tricky given how unlikeable Nick is and how unlikely the premise of the romance angle was.

You have to be willing to tolerate an occasionally slow pace, and willing to enjoy a very detailed attempted extrapolation of what it would be like to be invisible, but Memoirs of an Invisible Man is, given those prerequisites, surprisingly good and surprisingly fun to read. Recommended.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-11-03

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21