My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was the first significant accomplishment of my “affirmative action” fiction reading plan for the year. I would have eventually gotten around to reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven, but I probably would never have read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man had I not made a conscious effort this year to read fiction written by minorities. I poled several literary friends on suggestions via Facebook, and this one was at the top of multiple lists.
It was a difficult read, and part of that was probably the point. Ellison’s prose is vivid, almost too vivid, and at times I was overwhelmed with the shear volume of description. He makes you see everything with a cinematographic vision, focusing in on color, sound, texture, and description until the tableau snaps into focus in your mind as though you’re staring a screen. This is especially effective in his description of crowds in the city or of tumultuous scenes of action or disorder. Ellison can describe a march, a mass meeting, and a riot with an almost painful slow-motion exactitude.
It was this slow-motion exactitude that made the book an grueling read in places. Because the plot itself was rather slow and meandering, the places where it slowed down, heavy-laden with description, were sometimes a painfully vivid slog. The story on one level quite simple: a black man whose name is never given (similar somewhat to Swanwick’s bureaucrat in Stations of the Tide) trying to find his place in the world. Yet the point of the book, and Ellison’s genius in describing it, also contributed to making the book a difficult read. I kept trying to put the narrator into my own framework of a clear and upward narrative or personal progression. For an “effective novel,” my mind seemed to keep telling me– or at least my expectations kept waiting for– we’d see the hero conquer personal and exterior difficulties and arrive at a new position of status and success.
But this was frustrated over and over again throughout the novel. From the narrator’s original fall from grace at the southern black college where the book begins to his ultimate disillusionment with the socialist Brotherhood in which he has gained a position in Harlem in the novel’s second half, he– and my narrative sensibilities– are continually stymied. Throughout, I found myself frustrated more with the narrator himself than the situations in which he found himself: he was constantly second-guessing what people thought or expected of him, constantly trying to make himself the person he felt particular social groups or situations expected of him. And then it hit me that this was exactly Ellison’s point and the reason this novel was so significant: this was the story of so many black men in the decades after the Second World War.
It gets a bit at the concept of awkwardness Adam Kotsko discussed in his monograph by the same name. Ellison’s character is constantly awkward: he doesn’t know what is expected of him, he’s constantly stepping into situations– between different social classes in the south, between union and management in the north, between the people and those who represent them in Harlem, between white women and their sexual perceptions of black men– where there simply aren’t social rules for governing interactions. Or where, he keeps believing until his revelation at the novel’s conclusion, he simply doesn’t know them. But that’s the point: this is a world in which a black man has to completely invent himself or forever be at the mercy of other’s expectations. It’s a world in which he doesn’t have a place.
This is a novel about looking through the eyes of others. And it’s uncomfortable, because it makes me realize how my own assumptions about progress, about what works and what doesn’t both dramatically and socially, simply don’t map onto other situations, other experiences, other social and ethnic and cultural groups. The narrator’s experiences portray life for a black man in both the south and the north, portray its frustration, disjoint, and in some respects its sheer randomness.
The narrator first buys into the mode of progress and education represented by his southern black college and the inspired example of its president; when he realizes the futility of this, he attempts to make it in the industrialized north. Eventually he finds a place as an orator and community organizer, but even here he comes to realize that people are less interested in him than how they can use him. Maybe that’s a realization ultimately true for people everywhere, but in the awkwardness and social chaos the narrator has moved through– a constantly shifting landscape in which the default social relationship has been exploitation– it’s a shattering one. No one truly sees him. He is invisible.