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May 2003
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William Martin

William Martin, by Nathan Childers, Varinoma Press, 2003, San Luis Obispo CA, hardcover. Dust jacket by Renoir.


It is only natural that Childers should attempt a mystery novel, and it is only natural that it should have Kafkaesque overtones. Then again, this may not be a mystery at all.

The novel begins in a well-to-do suburb inhabited by corporate mandarins, members of the managerial class who exist to give each work. They live in nice homes complete with pools, get drunk at each other's parties, grope each other's spouses, practice gourmet dining, and never use their intellects when not at work. The first half of the novel chronicles their comings and goings. Our attention is drawn to William Martin who is, it becomes evident, an invisible man, a man whom nobody notices.

Here Childers follows the dictates of the writing school mavens (despite his infamous denunciation of the triviality of said gentry) and shows rather than tells us that Martin is invisible. We see him be present at parties to which no one remembered to invite him, and at which no one remembers him being. We see him participating in conversations where no one notices or remembers his participation.

Invisibility is a common enough theme in literature. There is, of course, physical invisibility as in "The Invisible Man" or The Shadow's mind clouding ability, Stories featuring physical invisibility tend to appeal to and rely upon childish empowerment, i.e., "What could I do if no one could see me".

The invisible is a staple of horror stories. There are doors that open with no one there, the sound of footsteps in an empty room, sighs without a sigher, and rustles of unseen crinoline. Terror, perhaps, is a reaction to violated causality.

When the protagonist is the invisible person, the story can be a direct appeal to power fantasies. More commonly such stories are warning fables. Why this is so is a good question. Do writers prefer to write stories with a scorpion's sting or is that what the audience demands?

More interesting is social invisibility; physical invisibility can be used as a metaphor for social invisibility, although Childers would never be that crude. Social invisibility, the presence of people whom we do not see, is ubiquitous. Indeed it is necessary. Society would not long survive without practiced eyes that see others as functionality rather than as people. The denial of one's social invisibility is a rich theme in the literature of resentment. Childers, however, has turned his eye towards a third form of invisibility, personal invisibility. There are people whom one doesn't notice, not because of their status or position, but simply because they are the sort of people that one doesn't notice. They are the faces in the class photograph that you don't recognize, the unremembered guests, the people present physically but not socially.

Childers explores that sort of invisibility. How does it work? What traits do the invisible have that render them so forgettable? What are the dynamics of social groups that create these islands of invisibility in their midst? Childers does not answer these questions directly; rather he illustrates by example. Childers does make us (unlike Martin's fellows) curious about William Martin. Who is he, what does he do, what does he feel, whom does he love, that sort of thing. We are answered indirectly.

In the middle of the book everything changes when, during a summer party, a dead body is found floating in the pool, the body of a man nobody recognizes. We recognize the body, of course; it is (or so we believe) the body of William Martin. The physical description of the body matches that of William Martin, even to his eyes, one blue and one brown. Likewise the clothes match those that Martin was wearing. More than all that, who but Martin could be an unrecognized victim in their midst.

The police come, police balk lines are posted, the crime scene investigators apply their little packets of chemicals, and the interrogators painstakingly take everyone's accounts of what happened and of their whereabouts. Chief among the detectives is one Inspector Montagu. We see the inspector acutely questioning various guests, making short shrift of their little evasions. His questioning then settles on one guest.

The questioning begins with questions that one might expect about the person's movements. It then takes an odd turn, asking personal questions. We learn that the guest is an old time resident, that he is living in the parental home, that they are dead, that he is the author of a curious volume entitled "My life as wallpaper", and that he is unmarried.

The tone becomes that of someone making small talk with a rather boring and uninteresting person, trying to draw them out and trying to do the right social thing. We are not surprised when the dead body, the crime scene, and the police all disappear as though they never were. Or perhaps we are; still the transition is handled smoothly - bits of business make the crime scene less and less visible until it has faded well away.

The mysterious disappearance of the crime scene prepares us for the moment when Montagu says, "Well, it has been nice talking to you, Mr. Martin, but I must see to my other guests." That is not the end of the book. The party continues, albeit apparently without William Martin. The novel ends when one of the guests notices a book on the shelves entitled, "My life as wallpaper." "What a curious title," she remarks, "I wonder what sort of man wrote it."

It was only after reading the novel that it occurred to me that the main character's name might be significant. I did a brief search and discovered that indeed it was - William Martin was the name of the notorious "Man who never was." During World War II the English manufactured Captain (acting Major) William Martin out of whole cloth, giving him a censorious father and a fiancee. Captain Martin purportedly was a courier, bearing among other things letters indicating that the Allies were about to invade Sardinia rather than Sicily. His body (donated by a British subject who had no further use for it) was planted off the shore of Spain. German intelligence extracted information from the planted papers. The Germans, relying on this intelligence break, prepared for an invasion of Sardinia, and were surprised.

The intelligence officer who dreamed up the scheme and put it into effect was named Montagu.


This page was last updated May 12, 2003.

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