Thursday, 29 April 2004

Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1952)

Edition: Penguin, 2001
Review number: 1234

Invisible Man is one of the most important American novels of the twentieth century not so much for its literary impact (though Ellison's writing is admirable in itself in many ways) but for what it has to say. Together with To Kill a Mocking Bird and Go Tell It on the Mountain, it portrays in novel form the experience of the black man in America in the same way that jazz, the blues, and now hip hop portray it musically. (The novels all belong rather more to the jazz age than to the hip hop era - there must be new novels about the subject but they have not come my way.)

Invisible Man is built around the metaphor which provides the title. The idea is that someone who is black has difficulty in being accepted as being a person, instead being put into a variety of stereotyped roles by society (even by activists working for civil rights). At times the narrator is truly invisible (in the prologue, for example); at others, no one can make out his identity; and at still others he is a generic stereotype of some sort. Being unnoticeable because of race that Ellison is talking about is perhaps more a specifically American problem, though we all tend to turn people we know only a little into stereotypes (kindly nurses, dishonest politicians, and so on) and are surprised when someone acts contrary to the picture we have of them. That this is partly Ellison's meaning is shown by the way that even the organising committee of a civil rights activist group in Harlem refuse to allow him to be an individual. In the UK, I would say that the sort of prejudice this engenders applies more across class than racial lines (though that may be my liberal middle class background speaking - and, of course, for reasons to do with restrictions of opportunity these boundaries often coincide). Another aspect of invisibility is also more to the fore - the feeling that someone considered inferior is so unimportant that they might as well not exist. A good example of this in another context is throughout the film Gosford Park, where the servants only exist as far as the houseguests are concerned when they are forced to notice them. In fact, many books about training servants would say that a good servant is one who is invisible.

The reason that Ellison's novel is so gripping, so effective, is that it combines something real to say and an interesting central idea with brilliant writing. Invisible Man uses a wide range of emotional tone - from anger to resignation, satirical humour to pathos, enthusiasm to despair - and all shades of feeling are masterfully handled. Of all the novel, my favourite passage is the funeral oration, delivered by the narrator for a fellow civil rights campaigner, a plea that the dead man should be remembered as a man, not as a symbol. Invisible Man is enjoyable even when it makes you uncomfortable, and it is certainly a book which makes the reader think.

As a novel, Invisible Man gives the impression of having come out of nowhere; I can't think of a writer who appears to have had a significant influence on Ellison. In turn, it is clearly a precursor of magic realism, and I suspect that Joseph Heller read it before writing Catch 22. The clearest link to the past for me is with Kafka, particularly apparent in the relationship between the narrator and the committee organising activists in Harlem; there is the same air of being the only person who doesn't quite know the rules followed by the society around him as is experienced by many of the Czech writer's central characters.

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