Monday, April 11, 2016

#82 - "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

I finished my 82nd book, Invisible Man, in January. Ralph Ellison’s 1952 work is a novel of racial tension in Interwar America; not an uncommon theme on this list, and one I was expecting to be similar (which isn’t a bad thing), to Native Son.

Invisible Man is the story of an unnamed narrator’s journey from the South in an unspecified time, to New York, where he works for social justice and racial equality. Starting as a gifted but underprivileged orator, he is able to obtain a scholarship through a humiliating “battle royale,” where he defeats other young, blindfolded, black men, fighting for a sac of fake gold pieces.

While at school, gaining his education, he is charged with driving one of the Trustees, Mr. Norton, around the area. They eventually end up in an impoverished black community where Norton becomes interested in the story of a farmhand who impregnated his own daughter. Distraught from the story, Norton takes ill, and the incident leads to the narrator being expelled from school and sent to New York with letters of reference from the Dean.

While in New York, it is discovered that the letters of reference are actually letters warning people not to hire the narrator. His plight is soon revealed, and leads to a job at a paint factory where, predictably, as in any novel of this type, things go horribly wrong. But, this leads to a job with the Brotherhood, an organization that seeks equality for all (most likely the Communist Party under a different name).

Putting his oratory skills to work once again, the narrator travels around Harlem, thriving for social justice, until yet again, things take a turn for the worse. After being betrayed by nearly everybody he had come to trust, the narrator finds himself living underground (both literally and figuratively), as an “Invisible Man.”

Native Son was one of my favorite reads from this list, and there are so many similarities between it and this book. However, I was never able to gain the same appreciation of this one. I think it starts with my sympathy for the character. In Native Son, Bigger Thomas’ story pulled me in almost immediately; both his tragic background and the events of the book. With Invisible Man, I never seemed to be able to fully get behind the protagonist.

Part of the reason might be his name. I’ve never been a fan of unnamed characters, as I feel I never truly get to know them. It’s almost as if the writer is trying to hide something, where as I am wanting full disclosure. I want to know as much about a character as possible or else it becomes very difficult for me to take any interest in them.

The same would be true of much of the story; everything seems so vague. In the beginning, while at the school, the story is quite engrossing, but in New York everything seems to get lost in a sea of generalizations and symbolism. The organization that the narrator works for, The Brotherhood,  is never really explained or detailed, nor are the many characters with whom the narrator interacts. I too often found myself lost and thus unenthusiastic about picking the book up. I kept anticipating an explanation that never came.

And this has been one of the more interesting parts about reading this list. When I started reading these books, I said I was a regular guy, reading some classic novels. I feel my reading IQ has increased tremendously these past six years, but there are still many books that leave me in the dust, and this might be one of them. I think I’m just not into symbolism and allusion, which might be my excuse for not understanding it. I do know that I really enjoy reading about a great, well developed character. Native Son chronicled one that completely absorbed me; Invisible Man never offered me anybody of real interest.

Ralph Ellison joins other authors from this list, who never really published anything else. Like Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee, and Malcolm Lowry, Ellison never published another novel. A few uncompleted transcripts were published after he passed away, but nothing he ever completed. I like to think it demonstrates how much goes into writing a novel; there often isn’t much left in the tank after that first one. That might be a good topic to expand on in a future post.

My next book, #83, will be The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen.

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