Thursday, July 26, 2012

Invisible Man

There are novels that show up on lists of the most important books or most influential or simply best.  Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is one that appears on them all.  It was first published in 1952, and immediately hailed as a rare novel proved forever to influence American literature and honestly to portray the Black experience in a volatile and changing political and social landscape.  While I appreciate its importance, I (somewhat surprisingly) did not particularly enjoy the book.

The book, told in the first person, spans the life of a young black man who graduates high school in the deep south as the valedictorian of his class.  He then attends a black college where he is one of the most promising men in his class.  A series of bad luck finds him temporarily moving to Harlem where he believes himself to be set up with numerous job prospects.

Of course, none of these turn out.  After some mostly unfortunate experiences, the narrator encounters a leader of the Brotherhood - a thinly veiled version of the Communist Party.  Brother Jack speaks a good game of color-blindness and a concern for Harlem, and enlists the narrator as an orator for the cause.  He plays the part brilliantly, recruiting other members and making himself a name, until the death of a "Brother" leaves him disillusioned with the party and its aims.

The invisibility of the title refers to the narrators continual experience that to Americans - particularly, but not exclusively, white Americans - he is invisible.  His name is not important, and in fact he gives his away when he becomes a Communist.  Downtown, people look past him as an embodiment of their enlightenment - they don't see color.  Uptown, he is lost, either anonymous or mistaken for a notorious local kingpin. 

Like I said, I understand why this book made a splash when it was published and for many years after that.  However, both the writing and the philosophy are dated.  I'm glad I read it for check-off-the-list purposes, but that's about it.

Next up:  A short, Russian novel called The Suitcase by Sergei Dovlotov.  With all the Russians I've read, this will be my first contemporary.  I'm looking forward to it.

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