4.5 / 5
"I am an invisible man."
First published in 1952 and immediately hailed as a masterpiece,Invisible Man is one of those rare novels that have changed the shape of American literature. For not only does Ralph Ellison's nightmare journey across the racial divide tell unparalleled truths about the nature of bigotry and its effects on the minds of both victims and perpetrators, it gives us an entirely new model of what a novel can be.
As he journeys from the Deep South to the streets and basements of Harlem, from a horrifying "battle royal" where black men are reduced to fighting animals, to a Communist rally where they are elevated to the status of trophies, Ralph Ellison's nameless protagonist ushers readers into a parallel universe that throws our own into harsh and even hilarious relief. Suspenseful and sardonic, narrated in a voice that takes in the symphonic range of the American language, black and white, Invisible Man is one of the most audacious and dazzling novels of our century.
Wow, this book was incredibly difficult to read - some scenes just made me feel so awful. I picked it up to celebrate Black History Month back in February but only just recently finished it, for a number of reasons. Mostly there were a bunch of other books read at the same time, but also this book often felt like a lot of “hurry up and wait” - there were long stretches where I couldn't put it down, but those alternated with long stretches of much drier material. Overall, though, what a great book. It is easy to understand why this was the 1953 National Book Award winner for fiction - Ellison was the first black winner of the prize, and he certainly deserved it for this seminal work.
I read up quite a bit on this book and its author while reading, because I was interested in the story behind it all. Ralph Waldo Ellison was named after - you guessed it - Emerson, and I have to wonder if his namesake influenced his leanings towards becoming an author. Certainly his friendship with author Richard Wright also influenced his writing career. I was interested to learn that Invisible Man was inspired by both men’s disillusionment with the Communist Party’s (in this book, this part is played by the Brotherhood) dedication to the black cause (or more specifically, lack thereof) following the end of WWII.
I will not soon forget quite a few vivid scenes from this book - namely, the scholarship boxing match, the incidents with the college trustee Norton both on the farm and in the Golden Day, the nameless protagonist’s experience at the paint factory (and his hospitalization thereafter), and, of course, his experiences with the Brotherhood which take up the second half of the book. I couldn't believe all he had gone through! It is understandable that he decides, ultimately, to go underground and become the eponymous “invisible man” (as he believed he was one already). I appreciated the namelessness of the protagonist, which made him an “anyman” with whom readers could identify, each in their own way.
I think in particular the story of Tod Clifton resonated with me, for its timeliness: Clifton, a young and unarmed black man, is gunned down by a policeman near Bryant Park in the middle of the day. I couldn't get over how eerily familiar all that sounded at this moment, what with the Ferguson and Madison incidents (to name just two of too many) in all too recent memory. It felt like someone had read this book and then taken notes, it sounded so uncannily similar to all that has been happening in our nation recently. It so upsets me that 62 years later, this story hasn't changed, despite all the advances we think we've made in the name of equality.
This book is a book composed of dark humor and intense satire. The hero’s absurd situations reminded me quite a bit of the feel of a Russian novel like The Trial (which I have been reading concurrently), which makes sense as the protagonist was supposedly modeled - as evidenced by his lack of a name - on the lead character from Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. For a much better exposition on the book than I can ever perform, this review speaks so wonderfully about the main theme of the book being that the narrator is simply used as a pawn - unseen by, invisible to, those who are using him for their own ends. (Amusing aside, though, the review’s author complains about Harper Lee never writing another book!)
Okay, I've babbled enough, and I really can’t say more than just: Read this book. Everyone. Please.
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