Sunday, January 30, 2011

Review: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a book that I have come across everywhere, but never took the time to read. When I worked at a library, copies of it were always coming and going across the circulation desk. I read excepts of the novel in other media sources. I even came across a piece of it used as a reading section in a standardized test (either LSAT or GRE). Despite this, I never really considered reading it. I guess I just thought it would be boring. Despite all the awards and critics' praise it received, I left it alone.

Obviously, since I am writing a review of the novel, all of that leaving it alone came to an end. The mighty random generator picked its number and we were off to the races.

Invisible Man, which was published in 1952 and received the National Book Award in 1953, is one of the most well-regarded piece of literature written by an African American. It focuses on the unnamed narrator, who recounts his life from a young, idealistic individual to the currently jaded man who lives by gaming the system. The almost six-hundred page novel follows the narrator from life as a college student at an all-black college in the deep south to his search for work in New York City. In those pages, he stumbles from one catastrophe to another before he understands society and his role in it.

On the surface, Invisible Man deals with the plight of African American during the early to mid twentieth century. The plot focuses on the narrator's experiences as a young man in the south, black nationalism, and Marxism and its relationship with African American plight. All of these themes are dealt with rather explicitly and are never analyzed with the soft touch or subtlety that such complex issues need to be approached with. I also believe that there is a good reason for this. Despite the fact that this novel, on its surface, deals primarily with the plight of African Americans, it doesn't seem like Ellison wanted this to be the main theme the reader takes away from the novel.

The much deeper, subtle theme of Invisible Man is that concerning individuality and the way one interacts and fits within society. The title, oft-confused with H.G. Wells' novel, is particularly apt. The protagonist realizes by the time he is narrating the story that he can game the system precisely because no one realizes that he exists unless he wants them to. In the toil and bustle of New York City, he is part of the mass of moving bodies, not a separate entity on his own. When someone does look at him, what they see is either absolutely nothing or a reflection of the viewer's own conceptions. Because of this, his perceived image is merely a collection of stereotypes that those who see him hold. If everyone the narrator interacts with views him in a different manner, then who really is the narrator?

I feel like this is a theme that almost anyone can identify with today. With the rise of various social media platforms, we all have different, new venues to interact with others. Because of this, it seems that one may interact with many more individuals in a much less intimate manner. How do these people view you? How does how you are perceived by individuals on these platforms affect how you behave and what your identity is? Can you identify your "true" identity or is it an amalgamation of the identities others attach to you? It is certainly self-reflecting food for thought.

The prose Ellison used in Invisible Man is beautiful, as well. He conveys the life on the street in Harlem, the electricity in the air at radical rallies, and the internal workings of the narrator equally as artistically. Despite this, the novel is extremely readable.

Anyone can and should read this book. I am extremely glad I had the opportunity to do so. It is so tremendously important not just because of its examination of African American life last century (though this is important), but more so because of its approach to the examination of one's self. This is a theme which transcends race, class, sex, or any other categorization. I could not more highly recommend this novel. It is a great, readable work. I just wish I would have read it earlier.

I give Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison four stars out of five.


The next book for review will be Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I knew literally novel about it, but it was on the Time Magazine list and apparently was made into a movie just this year. I'm a little under halfway through it already, so there should be a review up in less than a week, time permitting.