Sunday, 7 April 2013
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
The writing is hypnotic in Invisible Man and the dread all-pervasive. Every time I sat down to read a bit more, I was sucked into the prose, even though it made me deeply uneasy and worried about what was going to happen next.
It is stark, it is poetic, it is difficult, and it is rewarding.
A stunning look at one black man's experience in mid-century America. I almost wrote "the black experience" and then realized that that would be creating exactly the kind of invisibility that the main character wraps himself in. Over the course of the book, the nameless narrator is many symbols of blackness to many different people, but almost no one actually sees him as himself, as an individual, as a person.
He is seen as a disappointing letdown to the college dream, a management fink, a union snitch, the voice of the community, the symbol of resistance, a savage black lover, a toady to the white man, and finally, almost as a horrible example.
Thrown out of his college, the narrator makes his way to New York City, to a job, briefly, and eventually to The Brotherhood, an organization working to reform on the world on "scientific" principles. But every time things started to go well, I knew that something bad was right around the corner, and almost dreaded turning the page.
Those he works for want to use him, those who oppose him want to eliminate him, and everywhere, he sees the desire for ideological purity used to justify the suppression of individuals, in the name of liberating those same individuals. The narrator's inability to turn off his sense of self, and his sense of the selfhood of others leads him into trouble, again and again. Being able to tolerate contradiction and ambiguity brings him into conflict with those who want to see only pure and tainted. The many varieties of racism are coolly and lucidly displayed.
The sheer complexity of this book, the ideas that fly off these pages and strike you right between the eyeballs, and it's all wrapped up in a virtuoso display of prose.