Sunday, April 08, 2018

Invisible Man (1952)

This great American novel, the only one Ralph Ellison published while he was alive, is conceived in such scope and detail it's clear he must have argued a lot with himself about the details. Obviously, for example, he decided not to use the definite article ("The") for the title, presumably to universalize the central tenet (or perhaps thinking he could avoid confusion with H.G. Wells's 19th-century horror tale). And he did not insert a comma between the two words, which would have emphasized his motivating idea with a pivot to hipster dialect. As much as anything, the struggle Ellison lays out in the totality of his amazing episodic saga, full of fancies and bold conceits and simply one of the best American novels that exists, is the matter of looking to win the simple respect of being seen. The presidency of Barack Obama and what came after are urgent reminders that the racial problems we refuse to face today we have always refused to face. And until the majority can look at the minority (however you slice and dice, by race, gender, ethnicity, religiosity, sexual orientation) and see them—a prospect that could still be unlikely today, more than 60 years after the publication of this book, which was nearly a hundred years after the Civil War—then the problems we have always had will continue. Some aspects of Invisible Man may seem out of date now, such as the lengthy episodes with the Communist Party, but if they are dated they are nonetheless good history, and certainly illustrative of dynamics still at play. Ellison's panorama is sweeping. It starts in the South, where Negroes are omnipresent but institutionally shackled, and travels to the North, where official policy is to keep blacks out of sight. In either case, the vertiginous sense of invisibility is produced for its objects, who are people. If it feels dated in some places, it still makes its way to moments that feel ripped from today's headlines, such as many of the encounters with police. And it's never less than dazzling, with its clarion language, headlong narrative momentum, and many cunning tricks. It is always operating poetically at multiple levels, with surging power. It's never mired by literary baggage but the baggage is there to be unpacked, on practically every page. The first-person narrator and our epic hero is unnamed, of course. One of his early experiences in the North is a job in a factory that specializes in a paint so bright it seems to glow, called "Optic White." By the general reaction to him of his all white coworkers it's evident he's a token hire. His first task is the final step in the process of making "Optic White" paint: 10 drops, no more and no fewer, of a mysterious liquid black substance. Oh there's black and white all over Invisible Man—it's what it's self-consciously made of. At the same time, in the factory, Ellison is also drawing a portrait of a nearly totalitarian war industry—which indeed prevailed openly in World War II and after, was characterized in 1961 by President Eisenhower as the "military-industrial complex," and is more virulent now than ever. So it's not just race that Ellison is on about, but also American power and corruption, the Communist movement, crony capitalism, and much more. Essential.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I taught Invisible Man a couple of times. In the context of literary works of a certain age, the dated segments still work, because the class will be used to reading older texts. One thing I wouldn't have thought of until I had to grade essays on the topic: the absence of a name for the titular character meant students let their imaginations run wild, trying to find ways to avoid saying "Invisible Man" every few sentences. (A popular substitute was "I-Man".)