Revisiting the Classics: The Invisible Man

by wjw on August 17, 2009

I hadn’t ever read The Invisible Man, so I thought I’d give the audio book a try. I had two initial impressions: (1) American audio book readers really shouldn’t try to read an entire book in a British accent (the reverse also being true, I’m sure), and (2) I hadn’t expected all the slapstick.

The Invisible Man is a book with a cast of stupid people, for all that one of them is a scientific genius. It opens well enough, with the bandaged, goggled, false-whiskered title character appearing in a West Sussex village. But then it stalls, and then we get a lot of low comedy, after which there’s a brutal Naturalist ending.

The novel was written for serialization in a magazine, and my theory is that Wells was writing so fast he really didn’t have time to think his idea through. He’d done his research well enough to come up with a reasonably convincing pseudo-scienctific explanation for what happened to his protagonist, and he had some fine opening scenes, but after that he was winging it.

Wells was winging it no less than Griffin, his scientific antihero. Griffin had dedicated years of his life to pursuing his invisibility formula without once thinking what he wanted to be invisible for. The result is a series of ridiculous slapstick scenes in which Griffin discovers the disadvantages of being invisible, and in which he tries to steal enough money and food to avoid becoming the Invisible Freezing Starving Man.

Were I writing about an invisible man, I would at least give him a more interesting job than petty thief. He could be a spy, a master criminal, a mysterious romantic masked and caped figure inhabiting the lower catacombs of the Opera (whoops, sorry, that was last month’s classic). Griffin, sadly, comes to megalomania too late in the story to be very interesting.

Until the very end, when Griffin’s troubles have unhinged him and he kills a couple people, Griffin’s worst crime is to rob a clergyman. (Though we could observe that Wells might not have considered this a crime.) There is a lot of slapstick as people try to uncover Griffin’s secret, and are punished for their temerity by being hit by floating chairs, tripped down stairs, and having their noses pinched by invisible hands. There’s a jolly music-hall comic-relief tramp, who is coerced into being an accomplice to Griffin’s crimes. There is a bearded music-hall oily Jew who exists to demand money from the protagonist. But basically, once the authorities realize that they’re dealing with an invisible man, the word goes out and Griffin is cornered and beaten to death by a mob of navvies in remarkably short order.

I hate to criticize Wells for lack of imagination— I mean, he did come up with an absolutely sensational idea to build his book around— but I really think this could use a second draft, possibly by Gaston Leroux.

I think I’ll go re-read War of the Worlds.

Sean Craven August 17, 2009 at 11:11 pm

I went through and re-read Wells a couple of year ago, but I missed this one. Honestly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them — and how much more pointedly political they were than I remembered.

One thing about War of the Worlds that I'd forgotten is that it wasn't just an alien invasion story. It also had the notion of the invading alien ecology, which I thought particularly cool for someone coming from that time.

Foxessa August 18, 2009 at 12:39 am

I couldn't figure this out until I realize, O he's not talking about Ralph Ellison's book.

Love, C.

dubjay August 18, 2009 at 3:41 am

Yeah, the Ralph Ellison book is well-known for its slapstick humor.

Indeed, Wells' political point of view tends to sail over one's head, if one is fifteen and American. Much more obvious now, of course.

Blue Tyson August 18, 2009 at 4:14 am

That's whacky.

So you are encouraging people that aren't Americans to not get American audiobooks? 🙂

dubjay August 18, 2009 at 5:13 am

No no no.

What I said was that American actors reading for audio books shouldn't attempt the whole thing in a British accent.

I mean, if I could tell the guy was American, so would the Brits, who would just find the narrative hilarious.

Dave Bishop August 18, 2009 at 10:51 am

Where can I get the audiobook? I'm a great fan of the 'Americans pretending to be British' genre!

The most famous example is, of course, Dick van Dyke pretending to be a Cockney in Mary Poppins. Another is a short story by a famous American horror story writer (better leave out the name) in which the lead character is a police sergeant in a London borough … except that he's obviously a police sergeant from a small town in Maine who has mysteriously taken over a police station in a London borough and is being given carte blanche to operate as he would in a small town in Maine … ? Very odd – even odder than the story's Lovecraftian plot!

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