The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 6: Invisible Man

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

JC

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The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 2: Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano. Malcolm Lowry. 1947 (Jonathan Cape, 1967)

Writing about one’s own addiction of any kind must be hard, obviously. Writing about one’s own addiction to alcohol and producing an engaging yet fair and realistic portrayal must be damn near impossible. Given the timeless street-cred and general ubiquity of booze how can anyone peel away the glamorous façade of fun times and bohemian hangovers and not come across as anything but preachy, boring and sexless? John Leland wrote of On the Road that ‘we’re no longer shocked’ by depictions, however graphic, of drug and alcohol abuse. Perhaps we cannot be shocked outright but the best writers of addiction novels, often addicts themselves, have always sought to convey that outright shock is not how addiction works. Addiction, as they depict it, is not an event, or even a series of events, but the permeation of a cyclical disease. The best of the best, Kerouac, Bukowski et al, rather infuse addiction into every pore of their books, sometimes hovering in the background, on occasion dominating the foreground, interacting with every character and every scene and every sentence. At the halfway point of Under the Volcano it’s perfectly clear that Malcolm Lowry inarguably belongs in this esteemed company.

Our plot follows the British consul Geoffrey Firmin as he attempts to deal with the travails of divorce and existential ennui by drinking himself oblivious against the majestic backdrop of the twin volcanoes which tower over the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. We don’t meet Geoffrey himself until p.43 but through Lowry’s deft manipulation of the landscape we are prey to the spectral penumbra cast by his demons right from the outset. Every second the author dwells on the alien terrain of Mexico, and M. Laruelle’s leisurely, introductory ramble gives him the perfect platform to do just this, the more we are gripped by an odd atmosphere of unique tension and have some tiny understanding of how Geoffrey’s existence must feel. It is endless, arid, without hope or time. Even the abundance of beauty and majesty becomes something sinister and antagonistic. And, like Geoffrey, this Quahnahuac feels trapped by an inescapable fixation with its past. From Maximillian’s palace to the Calle Nicaragua every aspect appears to have seen its glory days pass by. Even the dormant volcanoes no longer have the fire of old. Of course, alcohol is everywhere in a very real and material sense as well, be it in the countless cantinas, the bottle in the car of a passing tourist, or the grand Ceveceria in the park. Explicitly and implicitly we are in Geoffrey’s head just as much as we are in our corporeal Mexican pueblo.

Perhaps this accounts to a large extent for the novel’s only real imperfections. When we are with Geoffrey the narrative is in equal measures gripping and disorientating. We are never sure, as he can never be sure, of what his next action will be or down which tangent his physical and mental deficiencies will lead. He is in constant conflict with the world around him and as such there is rarely a dull moment. The accounts of Hugh, Yvonne and Jacques are far more coherent, better structured and keep a steadier pace, logically so given their greater lucidity. These chapters can be both hugely entertaining and exquisitely written, without even beginning to unpick the fantastic allusions, Faustian and otherwise, peppered throughout the book. Yvonne’s ride with Hugh to the aforementioned Ceveceria is a fantastic case in point, wonderfully illustrating the former’s wry-yet-playful humour playing off against the latter’s bubbling unease at coming events. They are rarely, if ever, dull and provide so much of the backstory, without which Geoffrey would be a far more monochromatic character. Still, we cannot escape the fact that Geoff’s absence weighs on every scene and as our secondary characters chart their courses according to him and are magnetically drawn back into his orbit, so we the reader wish to be drawn back also. It’s really up to the reader to decide whether this is a limitation, a feat of literary engineering at its finest or both.

 I can’t recall too many more captivating figures than Geoffrey Firmin and I could happily spend the rest of the novel sat on the stool next to him as he props up the bar at another dusty cantina and regales the barman with deep philosophies, non-sequiturs and half-formed thoughts. Yet at no point are we invited to join Geoffrey in his most solitary of pursuits. He remains at a distance from us, that rarest of men who we can neither laugh with nor at, though we care for him deeply. An abrasive, often rude, selfish man at such a remove should not invoke such compassion yet Geoffrey does just that because we see in him a naively innocent confusion at life and a mulish determination to muddle through along the known paths which is universally relatable. That is why, as the Day of the Dead approaches we hope, as perhaps even Geoffrey does not, for his salvation and redemption be that in life or through death. Both paths seem so totally barred to our protagonist that we cannot imagine anything other than the nightmarish status quo for him. At the midpoint of Under the Volcano it’s an exhilarating prospect to see how Lowry leads us through to the mire to the end which seems as impossible as it is inevitable.

1/2 Way Rating: 8/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 9/10

JC