Friday, November 13, 2020

"Invisible Man," by Ralph Ellison--Fiction Review

Today’s review is on “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison—ah-ha! You all read this review’s title and thought ole Kevin was losing his marbles, reviewing the same book twice. But no—this is another book about invisibility, metaphorical invisibility, where Ellison tries to capture the black experience through fiction. 

Ralph Ellison

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

This book is really a series of stories, loosely strung together by our unnamed protagonist, a young black man. Because of circumstances mostly out of his control, he leads several lives that make him an excellent everyman character—who is black. I say he’s an everyman character, but part of the novel’s point is he’s also no one because of his persistent anonymity. The whole device of never properly naming the protagonist of the story is clever in supporting this theme.

Sometimes funny, “Invisible Man,” for the most part, is rather poignant. I believe its most salient point is that—despite how society acts—black people aren’t all a homogenous group. They are people, some good, some bad, some apathetic, and others deeply caring and loving. They don’t all think the same, they don’t all value the same things, but they all have the shared experience of being black, which in America, historically and today, is a mixed bag—often negative. All that, plus the marginalization and being robbed of agency in one’s own life, is what I believe Ellison was trying to capture with this novel.

Ellison had to have known he would ruffle some feathers with this novel because he takes an unsparing examination of all society. Not just with what you might expect—topics such as racism and how violence tends to only accomplish more violence, but his critiques also wither things that are nearly universally considered virtues. His point, I believe, is that under the right circumstances, even good things can be corrupted—and that’s a brave and subtle point to make.   

What I don’t love about this book:

The whole medical experiment scene, while creepy, and I like creepy, just ends awkwardly. I get the spirit of what Ellison was driving at—a sort of Tuskegee Experiment vibe—but plotwise, it’s an episode somewhere in the middle of the story that feels out of place. After the protagonist is injured “accidentally” at the paint factory he is working at, he’s taken to the company doctor to be treated. And sure, that was a popular thing back in the day and relevant to the black experience. If you’ve ever read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” you’ll know that the medical profession has had some troubling track records with black people. But why it doesn’t work for me is it doesn’t add or take away anything in the novel. It happens, the protagonist has an odd conversation with the doctor, and then he leaves. But other than suffering from feeling faint for a bit, he has no further complications, and it’s as if nothing happened.  

Narratively speaking, occasionally, the transition from one scene to the next got a little foggy for me. I’ve considered that might be an intentional move by Ellison to further the novel’s surreal atmosphere, but, for me, any time I miss a mental gear change as I did several times in this book, it just annoys me.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

We begin the story with the protagonist, squatting in his lair-like abode, stealing electricity, and generally living as a hermit. It’s not given to us yet why he shuns society, but he then starts in on his story, explaining how he got there by the end of the novel.

Early on, we experience our protagonist fighting in a genuinely bizarre battle royale to entertain rich white people. The whole scene is brutal and uncomfortable. The reason why he, as several other youths, are participating in this nonsense is to earn some money. Furthermore, the protagonist was promised that he can make a little speech afterward—as if anyone truly cared. They tell him, to the effect, and rather patronizingly, that he was a good boy and reward him with a scholarship to an all-black college and a briefcase.

At the school, he’s given the task of chauffeuring a wealthy white trustee of the college around to where ever he’d like—or so he thought, taking his instructions literally. It all goes to hell when the narrator takes the trustee to the poor side of town to meet with a notorious farmer in the community. When the trustee feels faint and demands alcohol to “stimulate” him, the narrator takes him to the nearest bar, which is also a brothel. 

The narrator is soon expelled from the school and banished to New York, with letters of recommendation to find employment. He’s promised after some time away, he can then come back to school. One of the assistants of the people the narrator’s letters is addressed to eventually breaks it to him that the letters all say he’s a trouble maker who will never be allowed to return to school and not to hire him. He does give the narrator a tip on where to find a job at a paint factory, though. 

On his first day, the narrator runs afoul of the local union and his supervisor, one of the only other black persons at the factory. His supervisor hates the union and is unreasonably suspicious of the narrator as being in their pocket—an altercation ensues. The narrator wins the fight since the other man is much older, but after seeming to let water pass under the bridge, the supervisor duplicitously rigs the boiler to explode, grievously injuring the narrator. 

The narrator is taken to the company doctor, who treats him with electroshock therapy for whatever reason, and the whole scene reads like a mad doctor experimenting on his patient. Eventually, though, the narrator is pronounced fit to leave and sent home, no longer employed at the paint factory.

Eventually, the narrator falls in with a group comprised of blacks and whites called “The Brotherhood” who profess the goal of making Harlem and, ultimately, the world a better place for all people. He begins speaking in the black community and quickly rises in popularity as a gifted speaker. However, not all is well because the narrator then starts to have trouble dealing with an extreme black nationalist whose violence undercuts the narrator’s call for peaceful cooperation.

In the end, the narrator learns two hard lessons. Even though the violent extremists are wrong in their own way—violence begetting only more violence—the narrator also discovers that the brotherhood only really valued him for what he could do for their agenda. When things became difficult and inconvenient in Harlem, they simply abandoned it and moved on to other things. That’s why the narrator shuns society to live as a hermit. 


A helpful book to have read before tackling this novel is Booker T. Washington’s autobiography “Up From Slavery.” I say this because Washington is the real-life figure that metaphorically looms over the whole of the narrative of “Invisible Man” from the college to the brotherhood. Ellison’s novel manages to show reverence for the Arch-African American teacher while critiquing his world view’s weaknesses—primarily its naivety. I believe Ellison’s point was—and what history shows—is that grit, determination, and education can take you only so far when there is a powerful group of people interested in limiting your success. This can take the form of active sabotage or more systemic roadblocks, disadvantages baked into the society for minorities.

Overall, “Invisible Man” is one of those books that should be required reading. Not exactly like “1984” or “Fahrenheit 451” but more related to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Except instead of looking forward at where society maybe will one day decline, it’s a contemporary look—retrospective now all these decades later—of failings already present within society.

Parting thoughts:

Centrally, where I disagree with this book is its ultimate appeal to and surrender to apathy. I’m not saying that the points made where institutions and community-based organizations have failed are invalid per se, but that failure in of itself isn’t an end. If something fails, it’s essential to learn the lessons of why it failed, but if the intentions and goals were good, try something else.

In my experience, people are often afraid of failure far more than is warranted, so much so, they let it stop them from trying much if anything. I’m not saying it isn’t uncomfortable or downright unpleasant to fail, but it is the greatest teacher.

I’ve talked about this before, but I fail all the time. It’s not a bug but a feature of the creative process. If I fail to sell a book today or get readers eyeballs on, I’ve learned something—what didn’t work today. It makes the rare moments of success all the sweeter and motivates me to seek out another moment like that in the future.

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