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Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

– May 24, 2014

I am currently past half way through Invisible Man as I write this. And I write this review now because I am not at all sure if I am going to finish it. I started reading because it was made mention of in a conversation. It was already on my shelf: I have long owned a paperback version which I had never successfully begun because I disliked the typeset but had recently bought a Modern Library edition for cheap at a used bookstore. Also, I have long wanted to read it because I have often heard it called a "Modernist novel," though I have yet to get a grasp on exactly what that phrase means in criticial discourse. My other readings right now are in Modernist criticism, so I picked up the book to have a go.

It is a good book, I am sure. How it is a "Modernist novel" I am not sure. Perhaps it is called such because of the author being unnamed and there is a modernist feel to its organization: the unnamed narrator/main character passes through the story almost as unwilling participant. Though, there is much I am unsure about with the book. It begins with the statement "I am an invisible man" and continues in explanation of that statement:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination — indeed, everything and anything except me.

Except — and I am now three hundred and fifty pages in &mdash there is to me nothing there for people to see. I have commonly heard the book spoken of as a character in search of individual identity. For me, it is a character searching for identity in everything except himself. I have no belief that he could possible ever find his own identity because he is a character adrift, not only in the world but also in his own psyche. Add on to that that to me the narrator is not a terribly likeable character and there becomes for me no "search" for identity. Or at least, that search for identity is a search for an identity which the narrator can assume, put on himself like a cloak, without having to engage himself.

The writing is well executed and at times exploratory: the shifting wholly into the voice of Bledsoe during his speech for example, or the 60s like style of the hospital chapter. Though the narrative is mostly linear and for it at times disjointed. The opening chapter of the battle royal is at times horrifying — even nudging to the surreal with the nude dancer. (Not that the language becomes surreal; just the scene.) The hospital scene is equally as strange (in a good way). Though once the narrative has moved to the next event, the chapters become almost irrelevant — which for me created for me a rather jarring read with the hospital chapter, which seems to have no purpose at all except to take a moment to write a chapter about a mad doctor in a factory hospital.

If I had read this book for a class I probably would be enjoying it more. To be honest I have read very little if any criticism on the book (as opposed to history of the book), so I am reading it in something of a discursive void. Mostly, if I fail to finish the book, it is because while reading it I am constantly thinking "Wouldn't your time be better spent reading the Eliot essays; or starting rereading The Changing Light at Sandover like you have wanted to; or reading part two of Dick's Valis trilogy?"

Bringing up the Valis trilogy probably prompts the question "Do you think Dick is a better writer than Ellison?" I am not sure if I would say that. Though, I would say I find the Valis books more interesting right now, if only because they are of a nature of book that my mind wants to be reading, books that would feed my psyche. Interestingly, reading Invisible Man has made me want to go back and reread Dos Passos's U.S.A., of which Invisible Man reminds me — in no small part to see if I still would hold the book as highly as I did when I first read it. (For me right now the great American novels are U.S.A. and Huckleberry Finn.) Perhaps one day, Ellison will fall in the category of that for which my psyche hungers. But right now, I feel I am reading the book mostly because it is a book I should have read at some point. And I am wondering if three-hundred and fifty pages is enough to count.