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Books: A Serious Image Problem BEING INVISIBLE

5 minute read
Christopher Porterfield

To become invisible, to move through the world unseen: it is a primal, universal fantasy. Most people who indulge it probably imagine the advantages that H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man expected from it, “the mystery, the power, the freedom.” But novelists, those eternal spoilsports, keep pointing out the fantasy’s downside. Wells’ protagonist eventually despaired of himself as a “helpless absurdity” before being hunted down and beaten to death. Now two contemporary writers, an artful veteran and a clever newcomer, offer variations on the theme that are hardly more optimistic. Their central characters, while not quite killed, lose virtually everything else along with their visibility — jobs, apartments, girlfriends, respectability. Invisibility, these novels suggest, is a difficult and dangerous condition, and there is no fun in it. Except, happily, for the reader.

Memoirs of an Invisible Man is a flat-out thriller, accurately described by its narrator-hero on the opening page as “quite genuinely exciting and superficial.” Nicholas Halloway, 34, a bland, likable Manhattan securities analyst, is the sole survivor of a bizarre industrial accident that has rendered him utterly transparent. Terrified of the Government intelligence agents who want him for secret scientific study, he goes on the run. His invisibility, ironically, makes him conspicuous; he cannot drive, open a door or carry a newspaper without calling attention to himself. Survival depends on meticulously relearning to live everyday life in his strange new state, eating where his digestive processes will go unobserved, slipping into clubs and unoccupied apartments for sleep, never so much as clearing his throat at the wrong moment. “This,” he reflects dryly, “was shaping up as a solitary sort of existence.”

Ingenious though a lot of this detail is, Memoirs provides far too much of it. The chase, often gripping, also goes on too long, though the bond between Halloway and his relentless chief pursuer — the one person he can talk to and who truly understands him — lends an intriguing psychological edge to the action. First Novelist H.F. Saint, 46, a Manhattan businessman, clearly knows his financial world and takes it none too seriously. Analysts, brokers, commodities traders are all wickedly caricatured, and in one of the book’s most fascinating passages, Halloway’s invisibility affords sweet revenge on the market’s greed and phoniness. In need of untraceable income, he invents a paper identity complete with a valid Social Security number, opens a brokerage account on imaginary credit, then uses eavesdropped insider information to make himself a millionaire.

By contrast, the protagonist of Thomas Berger’s Being Invisible cannot seem to invent an identity for himself on paper or in person; when he uses his invisibility, clumsily, to filch $2,200 from the cash drawer of a bank, he is so conscience-stricken that he returns the money before closing time. Fred Wagner, a copywriter for a mail-order catalog and a would-be novelist, is the sort of wimp whose wife of four years would leave him out of “contempt for his habitual failure to claim justice from the petty tyrants of quotidian life.” One day he discovers that he can simply will himself, and anything he is touching, into invisibility and back again. This gift enables him to learn more than he wants to know about other people’s private lives, but it cannot save him from messing up his own. He soon finds himself fired from his job and passively succumbing to sexual entanglements with a dopey ex-colleague and a predatory cocktail harpist who lives in a neighboring apartment.

In short, Wagner’s invisibility, far from making him conspicuous, merely corroborates the fact that “he was already, and had been long since, invisible in the moral sense.” When he decides to reveal his power to others, he has just as much trouble getting them to believe in his unseen self as in his presence. “I’m sorry, Fred,” says his bored doctor after Wagner has disappeared and reappeared before the man’s eyes, “we just don’t have time for any more shenanigans.” Berger’s sly theme: invisibility is almost beside the point. Character, not circumstance, is Wagner’s dilemma, and a very funny and touching one it is. As might be expected from the author of such novels as Sneaky People and Neighbors, Berger surrounds Wagner with a gallery of vividly tacky secondary figures, notably a crude, egomaniacal sculptor named Siv Zirko, who is putting the make on Wagner’s estranged wife. Significantly, the artist’s smash-hit exhibition is just what the term implies; its centerpiece is a daunting replica of his erect phallus.

Both Berger and Saint have trouble finding an ending, and finally place their characters in the hands of extraordinarily sympathetic women — a pleasant fate but an improbable one. This is particularly disappointing in Being Invisible, if only because the book raises higher expectations than the straightforwardly commercial Memoirs. Berger has qualities that Saint as yet lacks, including a distinctive prose style and a disciplined, selective eye. His antihero Wagner, seeking somebody else’s faith to validate his existence, at least conveys a sense that something more is at stake than a big movie sale. Saint’s Halloway remains a see-through personality, dismissed even by his yuppie former friends as “never much on belief of any sort.” With him and his adventures, as he himself says, what you see is what you get.

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