Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Good Hooks, Bad Books: The Invisible Man!

Be it a third martini, or a second Gulf War, we’re all familiar with ideas that look great in theory but are disasters in practice. In the literary world, those disasters grate especially intimately; there’s no feeling quite like reading a book and wishing it were better, wishing it had seen more of its own potential – or even just wishing its author could write a little better.

Today’s bad book with a good hook is The Invisible Man, the 1897 novel by H. G. Wells (about Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel of the same name – a bad book with a bad hook – the less said the better), in which a megalomaniac scientist named Griffin develops a serum that will turn him invisible. He tries the serum out first on his landlady’s cat – after first strapping the miserable creature down, of course – and watches astounded as the animal disappears (all except for its inky cat eyes, which appear to defy even modern science, then as now).

Shortly after that initial success, he makes himself disappear, and by rights the novel – now empowered by one hell of a good hook – should take off.

But it doesn’t, and the reason is very simple: not only is Griffin (visible or in) a putz, but he’s also a completely ineffectual one – in his own words, a ‘helpless absurdity.’ Wells might have, shall we say, absorbed the idea for his famous book from other ‘invisible men’ books 0f the time  (among the many, many other candidates are E. P. Mitchell’s 1881 The Crystal Man and Ambrose Bierce’s 1893 The Damned Thing), but he himself was a trained scientist, and as usual, trained scientists ruin everything. Instead of letting his imagination go wild (as Wells could sometimes do), he adheres strictly to the hypothetical of his premise: what if, by playing footsy with chromatics, a man could make himself invisible?

Well, Herbert George reasoned, you’d have an invisible man. A man, in other words, you couldn’t see. And that’s it. You could still see his clothes. And hell, Scientifically speaking, if it’s his body that’s been changed by the serum to be invisible, then anything entering his body – like friggin food – would need a little while to turn invisible too. So you’d be able to see his eggs benedict pretty much until the moment they became poo.

So after ‘stumbling upon’ this great hook for a book, Wells gives us page after page of what would happen if a megalomaniacal schmuck ran around outside all day naked in freezing cold weather (taking breaks now and then to hide in a dark closet long enough to digest something, for cripes sake). Griffin immediately catches cold, and he spends the entire book coughing and sneezing right next to people who can’t see him and so can’t tell him to cover his mouth. After about a million years (scientists – yeesh), he realizes he needs steal some clothes so he doesn’t freeze his invisible ass off. He sneaks into a junk shop in Drury Lane and spends a miserable few hours there when the proprietor accidentally locks him in a room. Thrilling stuff.

Eventually Griffin comes to a conclusion – a boneheaded conclusion, precisely the reverse of right: he decides the only way his newfound power will be really effective is if he decamps for some small town in the country. And he does indeed cause untold petty havoc in one such town – for about the five minutes necessary for the startled townspeople to realize that even though he’s invisible a) dogs can still smell him, b) he can still be punched and kicked and grappled, and c) he can still be shot, for cripes sake. He makes his desperate escape to the house of Kemp, an old school chum to whom he unburdens not only his secret origin but his diabolical plans, which by this point in this bad, bad book are nothing short of hilarious:
[The Invisible Man] must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes – no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways – scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.

Scraps of paper thrust under doors … the blood chills. This pea-brain couldn’t terrorize a toddler’s tea party, and Kemp very quickly realizes this and begins instructing the locals on all the various ways to track, apprehend, and even kill an Invisible Man:
‘Bear in mind,’ said Kemp, ‘his food shows. After eating, his food shows until it is assimilated. So that he has to hide after eating. You must keep on beating – every thicket, every quiet corner. And put all weapons, all implements that might be weapons, away. He can’t carry such things for long. And what he can snatch up and strike a man with must be hidden away.’

‘Good again,’ said Adye. ‘We shall have him yet!’

‘And on the roads,’ said Kemp, and hesitated.

‘Yes?’ said Adye.

‘Powdered glass,’ said Kemp. ‘It’s cruel, I know. But think of what he may do!’

Think of what he may do? Jack, pretty much. If you make the mistake of not listening for footsteps on the creaky floorboards next to you, there’s a chance Wells’ invisible man might sneeze on you, but that’s about it (well, aside from the ewww-factor of watching his invisible juices go to work on his steak-and-kidney pudding). The good hook – as simple and effective then as it still is today (readers are heartily encouraged to read H. F. Saint’s fantastic 1987 novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man for a look at Wells’ exact premise done wonderfully) – lodged in a bad book.

And a bad book that could easily have been good, if Wells hadn’t been such a poindexter! The premise of invisibility is patently ridiculous in the first place, so why not add to it just enough to make it dramatically effective? Virtually any such addition would have saved this book; say the Invisible Man can turn invisible, at will. Done! Say the Invisible Man’s body emits a field that turns things close to it – like weapons or friggin clothing – invisible as well. Done! Say the Invisible Man can make his body not only invisible but intangible. Done! In any such instance, a botched plot is salvaged from its own scientific credibility and at least the beginning of a Reign of Terror are believable.

As it is, all we’ve got is some schmoe with a drippy nose.


fIsHiNg??? said...

[...] Good Hooks, Bad Books: The Invisible Man! | stevereads [...]

Mike M. said...

I hate to disagree with you on your own blog, but I feeli like your dismissal of Ellison's Invisible Man might actually warrant a few more words.

Steve Donoghue said...

Hate to disagree with me on my own blog? Mike, you're ENCOURAGED to disagree with me on my own blog!

On the subject of Ellison's "Invisible Man," I'm assuming the few more words you're looking for will have to be more than "It stinks"? What can I say? I've always found it a boring, preachy, spottily-conceived book, one that thinks its job as a novel is done once it seizes the moral high ground. Actually, all of those things can be said of Wells ' book too, but since he was getting paid by the copy, at least he occasionally TRIES to interest the reader. Then again, I was raised Catholic - I might be a little thin-skinned for extended allegories.