Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison. 1952. (Penguin Essentials, 2014)
Ideally, in the following scenario, I’d like to cast myself as the victim of circumstance and context. I had perused one copy of Invisible Man in my lifetime. This was a dusty volume tucked away in the bowels of an uninviting academic library, whose sombre black binding allied with a misleadingly severe synopsis inside the front cover led me to the callow conclusion that here was a worthy book, but probably not an enjoyable one. I scented exhortation and instruction and I balked. It was not until some years later that I came across Ralph Ellison’s magnum opus again, this time in the sunlit basement of a cosy, local bookstore. Gone was the dour binding, with the fresh, modern paperback instead carrying an arty, designer affect. More importantly, the misleading blurb had vanished. In its place one telling snippet of review purporting that the contents were nothing less than ‘savagely funny’.
Whatever part the contextual played, to have deprived myself of so fine a book for so long seems like just desserts for an approach to book selection so ill-advised as to be axiomatic. Ellison simply blurs so many of the boundaries inherent in most strands of literature that every new page is at once a surprise and a reward. Take our main character. On some level he is an everyman, an exemplar of the postwar black Americans who sought the decent life they were promised, and the path of his life, from an unfulfilling education through a jungle of inhospitable employment to the unavoidable heart of the city, is one which many millions must have undertaken in the same era. Yet throughout he remains a unique quantity, his actions not predictable to any template, but consistent to that singular consciousness discernible in both past and present iterations of our protagonist in spite of the vast oceans of experience which separate them.
By the same token the manner in which Ellison refuses to name our titular invisible man allows him to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand we are forced to acknowledge the system which denies him name and personhood. On the other Ellison is explicit in repeatedly forcing us to flirt on the brink of a final knowledge of this name. These are light, playful, genuinely comedic moments, so palatable that we almost miss the nugget of truth inside, namely that identity involves much more than mere possession of forename plus surname. Yet they are instants that should make us profoundly uncomfortable also. We’re forced to confront the fact that, though we are familiar with, and comfortable in the presence of, our protagonist there is so much about him we do not know, and a chasm of experience which a reader such as myself, at such a remove of time and distance, can never truly cross.
This dichotomy gives the book a unique flavour but it one of a number which keep the book in a state of flux, and draw us away from assuming the Invisible Man’s life is one grey traverse. In a similar vein, the state of reality we experience in the book is rarely static. At one moment we are traipsing across the pristine lawns of the southern college anchored by the presence of the proud academic buildings surrounding, at the next we are thrust in to a surreal vortex of character and noise at the Golden Day. No sooner have we passed the time by literally watching paint dry, with all the attendant mundanities of trying to eke out gainful employment in the face of an obliviously ignorant employer, than this sombre semblance of routine is shattered by the industrial accident which lands our hero in hospital, via a jumble of senses and sounds which leaves us just as shell-shocked as its recipient, and renders the resultant interlude of semi-conscious drifting a welcome refreshment.
Ultimately it is this ebb and flow which gives life to the tale. Despite the narrator’s vantage point from the end of the tale, the trajectory of his immediate future seems as much to take him by surprise as it does ourselves. The action often accelerates out of nothing, and ceases motion just as fast, but when we restart it is always at a new pace, at a total remove from anything encountered before. The evolution of our hero is so bewildering and incomprehensible to him precisely because of this. He exists, through no design or desire of his own, outside of the normal experience even of time. His invisibility manifests itself again.
1/2 Way Rating: 8/10 Final Rating: 8/10