Advertising copywriter Fred Wagner lives a mundane existence, dreaming of being a novelist but making scant progress on his first literary effort. His career has stalled and his personal life is falling to pieces, but everything seems poised to change when, one day, Fred realizes he can will himself in and out of visibility. A world of possibilities seems finally within reach—that is, until Fred learns that invisibility isn’t the panacea he hoped it would be. Filled with humor and pathos, Being Invisible perceptively examines the life of a struggling writer and the power each of us has to change our own lives. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Thomas Berger including rare images and never-before-seen documents from the author’s personal collection.
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By Thomas Berger
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1987 Thomas Berger
All rights reserved.
Fred Wagner began his career of public invisibility in a large midtown post office. Until that time he had only experimented with the technique in the privacy of his home (where he lived alone at the moment), before the full-length mirror mounted on the back of the bedroom door, for especially when starting out, one does not become invisible without carefully studying one's reflection. No human being can otherwise see much of himself, the corollary of which state of affairs is that other people, even strangers, are therefore greater authorities on one's exterior than the owner thereof. From the first, through being invisible Wagner learned many truths that otherwise would have been inaccessible.
On the day in question he had written an unusually long letter to his sister, who lived across the continent from him, on the subject of his failed marriage. He had written it at work, but he could not get away with mailing it there, where lately management had instituted a stern new program of economy, which included the interception of any attempt to charge private postage to the firm. Paper-clip and rubber-band allotments were policed as well, and telephone calls were sometimes monitored so as to ascertain in whose interest they were being made, the company's or personal.
In the vast lobby of the post office, a grandiose architectural relic, were several machines that provided stamps on the application of coins. But as it happened Wagner was not at all sure that, though the letter seemed heavier than an ounce, it really needed more than one basic stamp, and having a low opinion of the postal service he was not eager to overpay it for what he believed, perhaps unfairly, was a job that had been performed ever more inefficiently as the rates continued to rise.
Thus for moral reasons he joined the end of the long queue at the only one of the many First Class windows in operation, though the postal workers were not away at lunch: a dozen or more were either casually conversing with one another, hooting occasionally with laughter, or wandering aimlessly about, carrying no burdens, en route to noplace. Several were puffing on lighted cigarettes, usually just under the bold signs that prohibited smoking. At least one of these men displayed a holstered revolver at his belt; he wore no upper garment but a dirty T-shirt. He looked less like a guard than like the kind of malefactor the gun was presumably intended to deter.
The line had not moved since Wagner joined it. There were seven persons ahead of him, and now the clerk, shaking his bald head, left the window. The pudgy woman in front of Wagner exhaled loudly, and the young man who was third in line turned to show an unshaven grimace to the others. Grumblings were heard, and there were those who pointed indignantly to the sequence of non-operating windows.
Time was, Wagner would have joined the others in the impotent display of negative emotion, but no longer. He was getting on, had passed the midpoint of the slide towards forty. He suspected there was a hopeless look in his eye, but could not himself catch it in the mirror: it was as if that organ had a pride of its own, vis-à-vis the man it served. He sometimes wondered whether he was not a unit but rather a collection of disparate parts which, finding themselves thrown together, made the best of what easily could have been seen as an unfortunate accident.
In time the clerk returned, and eventually the woman just ahead of Wagner reached the window. She briskly asked for a roll of stamps and was quickly furnished with one and departed, but as Wagner stepped forward, the postal employee, whose tinted eyeglasses were taped at the nosepiece, replaced himself with a handmade sign that was not even decent enough to contain a word: a crudely drawn arrow, in what would seem from its color (orange) a child's crayon, pointed to the left. But all the other windows in that direction remained unmanned as Wagner plodded from one to the next, in the assumption he was the leader of a delegation. When he reached the end of the counter and turned back, he saw a new clerk in attendance at the window immediately next to the one he had left, and the queue was in place before it. He had been too impatient. Once again his age was inhibiting. As a younger man he might have taken his just cause to the persons in line. It was by no means certain he would have been rejected: kindnesses, little decencies were not unknown in the city, despite the received idea that man when crowded is necessarily callous. But nowadays he could not risk being turned away. He had exiled himself from this temporarily cohesive group: why should they forgive him?
Later, looking back on himself as he had been during this era, he wondered at his reluctance to use his marvelous gift. But he had not been at all sure it would work. Becoming invisible in the sanctuary of a private bedroom was one thing: that he could not see himself when alone might be an optical illusion. If reality were to be respected—and except in this case he had never known its principles to have been abrogated his life long—it was impossible to become invisible simply as an exercise of the will. He might well be insane: to act publicly on his madness might result in his being committed.
However, a failure to become invisible would hardly be detectable and would leave one no worse off than at the outset, unless of course one was so foolish as to assume the process was working when it was not, which would be easy enough to ascertain. Then too, Wagner recognized that in his current situation he was already, and had been long since, invisible in the moral sense. It was not only appropriate to bring his physical state into conformity with the rule; it was probably required were he to take himself seriously from this moment on.
So then and there, he started to become invisible. The process took a while to be completed. His face and hands, unadorned flesh, went quickly, but the clothing needed more time: he had not anticipated this delay, for as it happened he had always been nude when disappearing in the bedroom mirror. However, he went utterly unnoticed now, even though for perhaps as long as twenty-thirty seconds parts of his attire could have been seen by anyone who took the trouble to look.
He wore a pair of good wool trousers: they went with dispatch, as did his leather shoes. But the socks had a high synthetic content, and they stayed visible awhile. His shirt, though wash-and-wear, for some reason disappeared more quickly than his necktie. He wore no undershirt. His jacket, or anyway that which he could see of it—he had no way of knowing whether it might have faded away in patches—could be seen the longest. Thus if anyone had looked at him, what would have been visible for as long as half a minute were: mid-calf navy-blue socks, a knitted green tie, and a jacket of brown-and-tan tweed in a herringbone weave.
Now what? He had become invisible from a motive of sheer resentment. Remarkably enough, he had had no practical end in mind. He had not known whether the trick would work—he still thought of it as a trick at this point, certainly not something on which to build a mystique, a career! I was a failure until I learned how to make myself invisible. That was an advertising slogan for a correspondence course of the sleazier sort.
As Wagner stood there in the supposition that he would momentarily return to a state of visibility, for all the difference that would make, the postal employee wearing the gun, the dirty T-shirt, and now, across his forehead, a red sweatband made from a rolled bandanna, emerged from the civil-service sanctuary through the door-gate at the end of the line of windows and sauntered at a disaffected pace towards some cross-lobby destination.
The narrow door, paneled below, barred above, perhaps restricted by some mechanism that ordinarily would have closed and locked it promptly, stayed ajar. Wagner was appalled at the negligence of a federal employee, an armed one at that: anybody now could walk right in and steal stamps. He himself certainly had no such aim as he pushed the gate open just enough to slip through—a maneuver that would not have attracted much attention even if anyone had been watching—and entered the area behind the closed service windows.
He went to the nearest station and weighed his envelope on the postal scale there. This device was of course the official balance and not the cheap little springed gadget one could buy in stationery departments and which was sometimes off by as much as half an ounce. Wagner was the sort of man who could lose face by the return of a letter with postage-due charges: he feared the implied accusation that he had tried to swindle his government and been stopped cold.
Forefingering the brass weight on the balance arm, he now determined conclusively that the letter did not, after all, exceed the full ounce for which one first-class stamp was legally adequate. Therefore this entire expedition had been pointless! For an instant of annoyance—he had squandered much of his lunch hour on a pursuit without profit—he actually disregarded his precedent-making invisibility, which anyway must have been only the product of wish-fulfillment self-hypnosis, for here came a great burly postal worker, glowering, to punish him savagely, for his trespass.
Fortunately he stepped aside at the last moment, else the big man would have run him down unwittingly. The latter plodded on. Wagner began to suspect he should come to terms with the fact that he could not be seen by his fellow man, but first he had to procure a stamp for his letter.
The drawer below the window, that from which a clerk would have sold stamps had one been in attendance, was locked—as were all the similar drawers in the sequence, when he tried them, until he reached the only operational window. This man's drawer, loaded with first-class stamps and both folding and metal money, each denomination in its own compartment, was fully extended. The clerk stood on the far side of it from Wagner's position, so that the latter could have had easy access to all compartments if he were to reach within at a moment when the clerk's hands were elsewhere.
Wagner was nevertheless not quick to take advantage of his situation. He had taken out his change, a big fistful of accumulated coins, and was searching amongst them for a quarter. Invisibility had transformed this task from the most routine of exercises into an effort that might be simple to a blind man but was most demanding of Wagner, whose fingers were not that sensitive when gauging diameters. It seemed almost more remarkable to him that he could not see the money in his palm than that he and everything else he wore or carried were invisible to all.
Finally he remembered that a quarter has a serrated edge as opposed to the smooth one of the nickel, and he had just identified the very coin he sought when the large postal worker whom he had earlier eluded returned along what, again, would have been a collision course had Wagner not detected his approach at the last moment and jumped aside, dropping the handful of change.
Though all the human beings in the vicinity of this event had been blind to Wagner's transformation into invisibility, they were universally alerted by the sound of money striking the floor, and all the necks bent simultaneously, all eyes were directed downwards.
The postal clerk obviously assumed that the sound of fallen coins had been made by money from his own cash drawer, as unlikely or even impossible as that would have been unless the drawer had got upset or at least jostled.
It was ironic that the accidental dropping of the coins proved to be just the distraction that was needed. While the clerk was scanning the floor, Wagner tore one stamp from a big sheet of fifty or more, then bent to collect his scattered pocket money, which he could not see.
... But suddenly the coins became visible. From his squat Wagner stared up at the clerk, who rubbed his eyes, then himself came down to floor level.
It had been Wagner's intent to drop a quarter in the cash drawer to pay for the stamp he had taken, but now that the coins could be seen he did not dare touch any. Not to mention that the clerk was now appropriating much more than enough to pay for the stamp. Wagner had probably lost a dollar in change. So much for invisibility!
He rose and left the post office, though not before mailing the stamped letter, which of course was invisible when he held it, but no doubt changed its state once dropped through the out-of-town slot. Not until he was back at the office (having eaten no lunch at all) did it occur to him that he could have taken more than one stamp while the postal clerk's attention was diverted. Nothing would have been more justified in view of all the coins he had dropped, which the clerk retrieved, no doubt to return to the drawer, so that only the wretched postal system would profit, and mysteriously at that: another confirmation that God looks after the interests of institutions.
But apart from stamps there had been money in that drawer: not simply a supply of coins, from which he could have replaced what he had scattered on the floor, but folding money, dollar bills and more. Invisibly, he could have taken some without incurring any risk whatever.
Wagner felt as though he were sweating heavily, but when he touched his brow it was utterly dry. He had thrown a scare into himself. What a foolish turn his thoughts had taken. He resolved not to become invisible again except for private amusement. Not only had it cost him all his change today, but he had had a very unpleasant experience coming up on the elevator.
He had just missed one car and therefore entered the next alone, but in another moment Morton Wilton and Jackie Grinzing stepped on board. Wilton had recently joined the firm in some managerial role Wagner could not quite identify, but Mrs. Grinzing was head of his own department. Their employer produced catalogues for firms which sold by mail order. Wagner and a half-dozen colleagues wrote the original copy; then it was edited by Jackie and usually returned for revisions before being shown to the clients, who could be counted on to ask for still more rewriting, seldom for reasons that seem justifiable to those who were obliged to do it. The art department also often proved a pain to the writers, as well: with most catalogues the illustrations and layouts were given precedence.
Jackie had never been celebrated for her manners, but she had never before been so rude as not to look at him when he was near. In this case he was so close that had he not stepped aside she would have bumped against him. Nor would Wilton spare him even a glance. Wagner could not refrain from making a bitter grimace that, so far as he was concerned, they could share. Not that it was noticed. People in power tend to become ever more overbearing.
At last he loudly cleared his throat, causing both passengers to assume startled expressions.
"This old contraption sounds almost human," said Wilton.
Jackie raised her heavy eyebrows. "I get worried by its grunts and groans. I know elevators have got devices on them to catch them if they fall, but still."
"In an emergency," said Wilton, who was all sandy mustache above the moist red of the mouth he exposed when speaking, "just hold on to me." He took Jackie's hand and put it into his crotch.
Wagner had actually forgotten he was still invisible! He felt his face grow warm. Unseen, he was blushing, not so much because of the indecency (which perhaps could not even be called that: so far as these people were aware, they traveled upwards in absolute privacy), but rather by reason of his own throat-clearing faux pas. How embarrassing it would have been for these two people in particular to discover his secret! It might be sufficient cause to get him fired. Who could tolerate an employee with the capacity to become invisible at will?
For it was pure will. Wagner simply decided to become invisible, and it happened.
Remarkable, and in fact pretty ugly, was the muscular way in which Jackie was caressing Wilton's groin, if that was the word for what looked more like punishment. There was no apparent tenderness on the part of either, and odder yet, not a hint of passion. Jackie was in her ash-blond mid-forties. In one way she looked her age. But coming at the matter from another angle, one might say her appearance was better than could rightly be expected. Wilton was shorter than she and may have been younger, but it was hard to tell with his straw-like hair, head and facial. He was leaning back against the wall of the elevator. He had not touched Jackie since putting her hand on him. His expression was inscrutable. Her own, owing to the shape of her closed mouth, looked almost angry.
Excerpted from Being Invisible by Thomas Berger. Copyright © 1987 Thomas Berger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
When a book's theme has been done before, I either expect it to be a brilliant version or a bomb. Well, this didn't exactly fit the expected. It had its brilliance and it had its ohmygodisitoveryet moments. The plot build was strong, that of a man who has always felt invisible who discovers he actually can be, finds that his invisibility is mostly in his head (the bad moments get him attention, and the women with their own issues want everything they can have to do with him).... but the ending was weak and took away from the strength of the rest of the writing.*Spoilers ahead*A man has decided he has nothing to live for, goes to commit suicide, and finally falls in love? Really? Weak and less than what I would have wanted from an ending. The ending made me roll my eyes, and therefore, I can't recommend this book. For the most part, it was a fun and compelling read, but the ending stripped all good from its ranking.