The Invisibe Man by H.G. Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It can be hard to remember just how extraordinarily good something this familiar can actually be! I love the 1933 movie. Watched it again just this past year. I hadn't actually read the book since I was at most a teenager. Then I found this hardcover copy on a display of discounted books and thought the design nice, so why not? It evidently was reissued as part of a series of classic short novels. (I bought copies of the lot.) I don't know that I ever intended to reread it. Here it was now, top of the stack, so... in for a penny, in for a pound.
What a truly masterful piece of fiction; brilliant invention, perfect logic, great suspense, comedy and even pathos. It was the comedy of it that surprised me most. It shouldn't have, of course. Wells was a brilliant comic novelist. We forget that, remembering him now primarily as the father of modern science fiction, but both aspects of his genius were perhaps never better represented than here, in this one slim book. In the classic film, the great Claude Rains manages -- almost exclusively with his voice, mind -- to invest the character with both menace and a kind of comic mania. The film's director, James Whale proved himself perfectly suited to reproduce the novel's thrilling mix of horror and delight in devilry, as in the unforgettable scene of the trousers dancing down the lane with no one in them. In it's own way, Whales' film is every bit as much an exercise of invention, and likewise a masterpiece of dark comedy. Still, there is so much the film simply could not do, so much they couldn't show that was there in the book. (How I should miss the mob from "The Jolly Cricketer" now, for example.) Just the specific thrill and painful vulnerability of being actually naked in the wilderness; of surviving the cold, and of peeping in on the conventional from well and truly outside, but also the depressing embarrassment of going without so much as shoes in the wide world. It's Wells, not Whales who must have the bays for thinking through every implication of his nightmare's perfect premise.
And that is the greatest gift of rereading Wells now, of having the experience and appreciation of the novel's artful simplicity, and yes, whimsy, but also the chance to marvel at Wells' inexorable comic materialism, his entirely reasonable, even cruel working out of all the logical consequences of the universal wish fulfilled and inescapable.
One thing the movie gets quite intentionally wrong, it seems to me now, is in suggesting, as Wells certainly never does, and as the philosophic socialist certainly never would, that the moral if any to this tale has anything to do with science presuming too much on either God or nature. Silly business, and I suspect no fault of James Whale. Just a convenient and reassuring bit of religious doggerel meant to sooth the credulous. Instead, Wells dispassionately describes the likely, if sadly unforeseen consequences of an almost unimaginably brilliant insight, and dangerous discovery, but this is no inditement of scientific curiosity. The horror here is in the loss of identity, of community, of recovery, and of ignorance and superstition and violence begetting violence.
It's a really superb satirical fantasy. I can't think of another near as good but Twain's mechanic in Camelot, or any better in English save Swift. And I can't think of another book, or of another novelist of 1897 likely to be so remarkably, permanently modern as this.
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