Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin, 2001), first published 1952, pp. 581.
Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is a study of one black man's attempts to navigate the segregated and racialised society of the USA in the middle of the twentieth century. Immediately on publication the significance of the novel was clear and time has not diminished this view; it rightly deserves to be seen now as 'one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century' (The Times).
Ever since publication its first publication in 1952, the novel's continued success has come in part through word of mouth: that this is a book to read. As F. W. Dupree is quoted in the introduction to the 2001 Penguin edition as saying, this novel is 'one of the most thoroughly read, really read novels of the time, thumbed to pieces in libraries, passed from hand to impatient hand among friends of just about every race, place and every age.'
So it was the case with this month's book choice, that it was chosen based on being given as a gift and on the recommendation that 'this is a book you have to read.'
In the prologue, the reader is introduced to the nameless narrator who explains his 'invisible' status. Here is a man who walks unnoticed by society, yet is constantly being 'bumped into' by others: he might walk through society unseen, but its effects on him are real. If much of the prologue is, on first reading, quite confusing, disjointed and discombobulating for the reader, the rest of the novel shines with a clarity of expression which will not fail to impress. What follows, then, is a chronological account of the narrator's life from a promising student applying to university, through to his eventual expulsion (or possibly, withdrawal) from society.
'That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come into contact. A matter of construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality. I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either. It is sometimes advantageous to be unseen, although it is most often rather wearing on the nerves. Then too, you're constantly being bumped against by those of poor vision. Or again, you doubt if you really exist. You wonder whether you aren't simply a fragment in other people's minds.'
-- Invisible Man (Ellison, 1952: 3)
This journey to invisibility which the reader embarks on over the next five hundred pages does not so much build plot tension, as build anger at the increasing racism, injustice, and -- not infrequent -- bad luck that the character suffers at the hands of his peers, colleagues, bosses, comrades and wider society. While there appears to be little room for optimism in the novel, with ever minor uptick in the character's life followed by sequentially greater falls, the narrator's resilience, coherence and insights on life in spite of everything that he faces (and there is a lot in this novel that he endures), is what keeps the reader invested in the novel.
The narrator's first major blow to his illusions about society begins with him winning a scholarship to a segregated southern university in the USA. While it is never clear exactly when the novel is set, this is a time of the Jim Crow laws, of racial violence and the Ku Klux Klan. 'The War' is also a recent memory among the fathers of the young narrator and his contemporaries, and it is the historical memory of both the narrator's father and grandfather that challenges him at various points in his journey.
Once at university, the narrator's studies seem promising. Here, it is assumed by others as much as by the narrator himself, that he is the next black leader, able and willing to lead the community and prevent any challenge to the laws of segregation. But, in his disastrous attempt to impress a white benefactor of the college, he finds himself expelled from the university. On the false promise of being granted a place the following year at he same university by the principal, and on the offer of work in the meantime, the narrator is encouraged to go to New York to sit out the remainder of the year.
Here, the narrator struggles to find work, though even when he does so, there is a constant struggle to hold them down. In one surreal, disturbing, yet darkly amusing scene, he causes an explosion in paint factory, causing everything covered in white paint, including some of the black employees.
Eventually, however, his luck turns. Being noticed for his ability to make speeches to a crowd during an eviction of a black couple, the narrator is identified by members of (what is assumes to be) the Communist Party. In lightning speed, he is recruited and appointed as a paid activist within the Party.
A significant section of the novel then explores the narrator's relationship to other party members, and the role their perception of his race plays in this. Sporadic debates also crop up between the narrator and other members of the unnamed Black Panthers about ideology, tactics and the nature of oppression that collectively the characters face. These debates only serve to reinforce the powerlessness of the narrator: structures of ideology, race, identity, and community confine his actions, words and thoughts, further leading him into rashness, increasing outbursts of anger and frustrating. (On a side note, one of the frustrations the reader may have in this novel is the distinct lack of anger, indeed passivity, that the narrator seems to often exhibit in face of injustice. Yet here, again, it seems that the author is showing us just how strong and powerful are our own illusions about the possibilities that capitalist society often seems to offer us.)
The narrator's promotion, seduction into bed by the wife of another party member, his gradual side-lining by his comrades and, eventually, his expulsion begin his final decent into invisibility. Indeed, the apparent speed of the narrator's 'churn' through the party will be an all-too-familiar tale to many readers, leaving one simply to sit quietly nodding along in recognition.
There are sections of the novel -- particularly in the latter stages -- which, like the prologue may seem irrelevant or indeed, quite far-fetched. In one stretch towards the end of the story, when after a race riot the narrator is mistaken for a well-known gangster in the area. While the narrative may seem overstretched here (both in terms of space and plausibility -- how can one really be so badly mistaken for such a weel-kent face?), the author seems to be touching on a central theme of this novel: identity and individuality. What does it mean to be oneself? What happens if you cease to be able to lay claim to that? And how many of us can truly say that our own individuality is ever recognised by those who look upon us?
The novel is as forensic in its introspection in its study of the individual as it is epic in its reach into enduring themes of society: do we really wish to be 'seen' for who we are? Is being able to blend into society all bad? And what of those visible minorities who cannot 'hide' as easily? Do we recognise the individuality in others as we would hope they see in us?
The book is by no means lightweight, but the structure of the chapters make it relatively easy to pick up the story at the start of each reading. The voice of their narrator has a clarity, power, authenticity and of experience which will not fail to touch the reader. And after reading, this is a book which will leave you asking only one question: when can I find the time to read it again?