Friday, May 02, 2008

The Book You Have to Read: “Memoirs of an Invisible Man,” by H.F. Saint

(Editor’s note: Last Friday, blogger Patti Abbott introduced what, in her words, “I optimistically hope will become Friday recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years. I have asked several people to help me by also remembering a favorite book. ... I also asked each of them to tag someone to recommend a book for next Friday. I’m worried great books of the recent past are sliding out of print and out of our consciousness. Not the first-tier classics we all can name, but the books that come next.” Among those tagged last week was The Rap Sheet’s Ali Karim, who’s submitted the following new installment in this “Books You Have to Read” series.)

My pick: Memoirs of an Invisible Man, by H. F. Saint.

If all you know about this debut novel is its dreadful, big-budget, 1992 film adaptation, directed by John Carpenter and featuring Chevy Chase--well, it’s time to think again.

The original 1987 book by Harry “H.F.” Saint is one of the most remarkable works of mystery (with a slight science-fiction edge) that I have ever read. The story still haunts me from time to time, and the book boasts its own distinctive air of mystery, as it is the only work by a writer who has since vanished into the ether just as surely as his protagonist did.

Although currently out of print, Memoirs of an Invisible Man is easy to find (and cheap on the secondhand market), so I implore you to seek out a copy. You’ll thank me, and Saint’s tale will make you look at the world differently than you do now.

Let me put my reading of this novel in some personal context. In the mid-1980s, I had returned from my studies the United States and was living alone outside of London. On a particularly hot Sunday afternoon, I was feeling restless. I headed to the specialist bookstore Forbidden Planet to find something to read (despite my apartment already resembling a secondhand bookstore]. In that shop, I noticed this silver-covered book by a writer of whom I’d never heard. I have always been a huge reader of thrillers, crime fiction, horror, and science fiction, but somehow Memoirs of an Invisible Man had escaped my radar. It hadn’t been mentioned in the fanzines, and I hadn’t seen any reviews. (It had been marketed in the UK as a literary thriller.) So I decided, on a whim, to toss Saint’s book into my basket, together with some comics by the then-young Frank Miller, who’d recently concluded his run with Marvel’s Daredevil comic and was penning Batman.

Afterward, I took the tube home. I was feeling a little down that day. My job was unsatisfying, but at least it paid the rent. Meanwhile, my own writing was going nowhere, yada, yada, yada. When I got back to my apartment, I was feeling restless, so I watched some television, ate a bit of pizza, and felt vaguely dissatisfied with my lot in life, for no apparent or tangible reason.

I just paced around, waiting for something to happen.

By 10 o’clock that evening, I was thinking about going to bed. But since I wasn’t yet tired, I made myself a pot of tea and peered into my bag from Forbidden Planet. Ignoring the comics, I plucked out the shiny new Memoirs.

The next thing I knew, it was 4:30, Monday morning. I felt energized by Saint’s tale and realized that over the last six hours or so, I had been totally absorbed by this quirky, paranoiac adventure novel. It was so inspirational and full of ideas, I couldn’t sleep for running them all over again in my mind. I made a fresh pot of tea and sat in a daze, watching the dawn creep threw the gap in my curtains.

I went to work that morning with an unaccustomed spring in my step, despite having had no sleep. On my journey into town, I’d realized that I was viewing the world a bit unconventionally. This book takes an existential view of life, blending Kafka with H.G. Wells, and throwing in just a dash of Richard Matheson. The result is a most unusual mystery yarn, the first-person narrative of Nick Halloway and his journey through life and invisibility. Halloway is a New York securities analyst who is sent to investigate and rate a company involved in particle physics and magnetics research. In a freak accident, the plant is consumed in an explosion and the young Halloway discovers that he has turned invisible. Then he discovers--quite to his alarm--that the company he was rating was funded covertly by the U.S. government. Before long, a swarm of government agents is crawling all over the facility. They are perplexed at one area of the complex that remains hidden from view--because it has become invisible. The big prize sought by the government agents, however, is Nick Halloway, who was inside the section that turned invisible.

This novel has two edges, really. First, we have the gonzo and deadly chase with Halloway hiding from the feds. Especially memorable is the leader of that cabal, Colonel Jenkins, who devotes his entire life and the full resources of the U.S. intelligence agencies to tracking down our hero, Halloway. Second and most interestingly, are the existential musings of Halloway as he adjusts to living the life of a ghost in Manhattan. It’s all amusing, dark, and captivating. We soon learn that the allure of invisibility comes with a price for the young securities analyst. In part an exploration of existence and surviving solitude, and part an action-adventure tale, Memoirs of an Invisible Man “feeds your head,” as Grace Slick once said.

The book made its author a wealthy man, but not a repeat success. As The New York Times’ Edwin McDowell explained back in 1987,
Mr. Saint, a 45-year-old New York businessman, had not written anything for publication since he was a graduate student more than 20 years ago, when he sold a short story to Esquire for $600. '”As wonderful as it was to get it published,” the author said in a recent interview, '”I saw that I wasn’t going to feed many mouths by writing.”

Mr. Saint, the father of four children, should have no worries on that score now. Warner Brothers paid a seven-figure sum for the movie rights. A paperback house has offered $600,000 for reprint rights. The Book-of-the-Month Club made it a main selection for April. And foreign rights have already been sold to publishers in Brazil, Britain, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden and West Germany.

Mr. Saint makes no claim to originality for the book’s plot. “The idea has been done many times,” he said. “I can’t honestly say how it came to me, but I wanted to write a book that had a chance of doing well financially, and at some point--I must have remembered H. G. Wells or ‘Topper’--it struck me this was an appealing idea.”
I was excited to hear about a film being made from Saint’s novel. But boy, was I disappointed by the results. It seemed like a vanity project for Chevy Chase, and the screenplay traded the existential air of the novel for a few cheap comedy turns. The only redeeming feature was casting the ever-reliable Sam Neill as Colonel Jenkins.

So in 2007, as I write these words I can still recall the brilliance of a book that 20 years ago changed the way I looked at the world. If you like your thrills with an existential twist, then seek out the darkness that the shadow of invisibility casts.

Click here for links to more forgotten books.

And I’m supposed to “tag” somebody else to pick a forgotten book for next week. So let me hand that responsibility off to The Rap Sheet’s own J. Kingston Pierce.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I went back to my diary for 1988 and I rated this book the highest of the year. And I had forgotten about it. Thanks for playing and, as I might have expected, playing so well.

Josephine Damian said...

Ali: Thanks much for participating.

While I can't recall what I was doing when I bought the book (how do you remember that stuff? ahhh... I know.... chess playing keeps the mind sharp), like you I bought it when it first came out no doubt because of the cool cover and the premise. Is there anyone who hasn't had a fantasy about being invisible?

And what a grabber opening!

Had no idea the author did nothing after that. His tale is an interesting perspective on the biz, on making a living as a writer. A story in ESQUIRE? You'd think that alone would have led immediately to bigger success.

Agree about the movie! Chevy Chase? Ugh! Talk about miscasting a role.

I have very few books in my To Be Read Again pile and not only is this one of them, it's the book I've owned the longest (outside of the copy of THE GREAT GATSBY I saved from my high school days).

A great choice and one I highly recommend as well.

Looking forward to what J. Kingston picks next week.

Anonymous said...

McTeague by Frank Norris 1899 made into movie Greed in 1924 - totally forgotten, totally amazing.

Vince said...

William Goldman gives an interesting account of adapting Saint's novel for the movies in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?

Corey Redekop said...

I so love this book, and the lack of a follow-up from Mr. Saint has only increased my fondness for it. Great choice, and while I do admit to enjoying the film, the book outclasses it on every single level. Except Sam Neill; perfect casting there.

Unknown said...

This is still one of my favorite reads.

peter monteith said...

Have recently found some more information on Harry. Seems he is now living in Earls Court in London. More information has been posted to my review of the book in Goodreads.

Unknown said...

Great book. Had forgotten about this. I must read again. I remember reading this on the very same train to Princeton. The fact the author never published again places him in the realm of J D Salinger who wrote Catcher in the Rye and basically vanished.