A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and wirry tour de force of style, strongly influence by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.
Don’t let those comparisons scare you – Invisible Man is a far easier read than Demons. Though still dated (in style and language) and a classic, the issues and insights considered are very relevant today. But I guess that’s what makes it a classic, right?
Ellison wrote a story that needed to be written and his own personal experiences inspired a work that reaches across time and racial lines – we should all be so special! I’ll admit some pages did not stick on the first read but a little careful re-reading shed some light on what was going on in the story. Despite the need for re-reading, Ellison’s style is still poetic in its own way. It ebbs and flows the way all great writing does.
The nameless narrator is imperfectly human and so much like anyone else questioning their identity, purpose, and moral compass that Invisible Man‘s place in literature is well deserved. I think any reader can find some ground for understanding why he behaves the way he does and, perhaps most importantly, why he feels the way he feels.
It’s a story that goes beyond telling us about racial disparities and inequality. It tells us that all people are multi-faceted. That we change and evolve throughout our lives. And that our purpose in life doesn’t have to be aligned with great-man-politics. If we can find out who we are and what we’re meant to do (read: what will makes us happy) then we’ve already won at life.
I’m left having to hope that the narrator has the introspective revelation we all deserve.
Photo and Synopsis from Amazon