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Friday
Jan172014

The Invisible Man

It is wonderful how little a man can do alone!  To rob a little, to hurt a little, and there is the end.

According to internet sources a film bearing the title of this classic novel might be released in the near future, although one will be disappointed to learn that it has been initially retooled as a wartime sequel.  What is so remarkable about the original work is the blueprint it sets for almost every action movie subsequently created.  It is fast; it is furious; it is never for a moment dull.  And unlike the crash-and-bash vehicles that have littered our cineplexes for decades, it holds together in perfect, if demented logic.

Demented would also describe the feverish state of mind of our protagonist, a scientist by the name of Griffin.  That Griffin already denotes a mythological creature should not surprise the astute reader; that the whole plot recounts an old parable with brutally modern terminology must qualify it as an astounding work of genius.  Griffin spends the first half of the novel rumbling about the small town of Iping, whose inclusion as a haunt for a being of his powers can be seen as both advantageous and wholly inconvenient.  Later information from Griffin himself suggests that the choice was motivated in no small part by the superstitions so rampant among country folk (a bias that would probably have checked off a few boxes on Wells's agenda).  Our first scene has a bandaged stranger taking a room in a backwater inn.  He has arrived without luggage and his demeanor cannot be construed as anything less than vicious.  Still, he is a paying customer, and the element of mystery is not lost on his hostess, Mrs. Hall: 

He held a white cloth – it was a serviette he had brought with him – over the lower part of his face, so that his mouth and jaws were completely hidden, and that was the reason for his muffled voice.  But it was not that which startled Mrs. Hall.  It was the fact that all his forehead was covered by a white bandage, and that another covered his ears, leaving not a scrap of his face exposed excepting only his pink, peaked nose.  It was bright, pink and shiny just as it had been at first.  He wore a dark-brown velvet jacket with a high, black, linen-lined collar turned up about his neck.  The thick black hair, escaping as it could below and between the cross bandages, projected in curious tails and horns, giving him the strangest appearance conceivable.  This muffled and bandaged head was so unlike what she had anticipated, that for a moment she was rigid.

Griffin may have calculated in his creeping madness that simple people would truckle to his whim and word; yet one would think that Iping would be precisely the type of newsy, closely-knit village in which rumor of such an amazing visitor would bring him sustained harassment.  When Griffin finally settles down to relate his story, we come to see that London is hardly too cosmopolitan not to suspect a freak of science.  But London also possesses a far greater allotment of policeman, thieves, dogs and other obstacles to a happy, invisible life.  And, perhaps most importantly, London does not have Griffin's old university chum, Dr. Kemp.

It is just in the middle of our novel that Griffin finds Kemp, likewise a man of science and a respected physician, and as hardened into skepticism of all oddities as any allegedly enlightened mind can be.  The methods of his introduction are brusque and unswerving, and Kemp, despite his hesitation, obliges himself to talk to the wafting air from where an old, familiar voice is ventriloquized.  Griffin provides his former colleague with a detailed and supremely exact method of how he came upon the faculty of invisibility, his experiments on an unfortunate feline, the suspicions and antics of his immigrant landlord, and, most relevantly, the tribulations of the public exercise of the greatest scientific discovery of all time.  The results were not what he had hoped for: 

The more I thought it over, the more I realized what a helpless absurdity an invisible man was – in a cold and dirty climate and a crowded civilized city.  Before I made this mad experiment I had dreamt of a thousand advantages.  That afternoon it seemed all disappointment.  I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable.  No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they were gotten.  Ambition – what is the good of pride of place when you cannot appear there?  What is the good of the love of woman when her name needs be Delilah?  I have no taste for politics, for the blackguardisms of fame, for philanthropy, for sport.  What was I to do?  And for this I had become a wrapped-up mystery, a swathed and bandaged caricature of a man?

Such misfortune explains why Griffin is continuously found cursing – at least ten times in the book's first third, and usually at either his beakers or the Iping natives – a pun on his malediction.  The Iping half also features an outrageous gaggle of dialects, probably because the overly class-conscious Wells could not bring himself to put his delectable prose in the mouths of the uncouth.  More than a century on, The Invisible Man remains the greatest action novel ever written, in the macabre stream of action novels, not those of spy and spymaster.  Apart from the disastrous transcripts of local expression, his prose has the ease and beauty of the highest literary art, and the novel would be utterly unappealing were it rendered in the hard-boiled style of modern screenplays.  Even if, as Griffin readily admits, invisibility is ultimately good for only three things: approaching, getting away, and killing.  Some things, it would seem, are better left undiscovered.   

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