Thursday, November 26, 2009

286. Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

History: This book was published in 1952. A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood", and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky. It is the only novel that Ellison wrote. Ellison states in his National Book Award acceptance speech that he considered the novel's chief significance to be its experimental attitude. Rejecting the idea of social protest -- as Ellison would later put it -- he did not want to write another protest novel, and also seeing the highly-regarded styles of Naturalism and Realism too limiting to speak to the broader issues of race and America, Ellison created an open style, one that did not restrict his ideas to a movement but was more free flowing in its delivery. What Ellison finally settled on was a style based heavily upon modern symbolism. It was the kind of symbolism which Ellison first encountered in the poem The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot. Ellison had read this poem as a freshman at the Tuskegee Institute and was immediately impressed by The Waste Land's ability to merge his two greatest passions, that of music and of literature, for it was in The Waste Land that he first saw jazz set to words. When asked later about what he had learned from the poem, Ellison responded: imagery, and also improvisation —techniques he had only before seen in jazz.
Ellison always believed that he would be a musician first and a writer second, and yet even so he had acknowledged that writing provided him a "growing satisfaction." It was a "covert process," according to Ellison: "a refusal of his right hand to let his left hand know what it was doing."
Plot: In the beginning of the book, the narrator lives in a small Southern town. He is a model student, even being named his high school's valedictorian. Having written and delivered a successful speech about the requirement of humility for the black man's progress, he is invited to give his speech before a group of important white men. However, he is first forced to fight a humiliating "battle royal" with other young black men. The battle royal consists of the young black men fighting blindfolded in a boxing ring while their white superiors watch in enjoyment. After finally giving his speech, he receives a briefcase containing a scholarship to a black college that is clearly modeled on Tuskegee Institute.
During his junior year at the college, the narrator is required to give Mr. Norton, a rich white trustee, a tour of the grounds. He accidentally drives to the house of Jim Trueblood, a black man living on the college's outskirts who impregnated his daughter. Trueblood, though disgraced by his fellow blacks, has found greater support from whites. After hearing Trueblood's story and giving Trueblood a hundred dollar bill, Mr. Norton faints, then asks for some alcohol to help his condition, prompting the narrator to take him to a local tavern. At the Golden Day tavern, Norton passes in and out of consciousness as black veterans suffering from mental health problems occupy the bar and a fight breaks out among them. One of the veterans claims to be a doctor and tends to Mr. Norton. The dazed and confused Mr. Norton is not fully aware of what’s going on, as the veteran doctor chastises the actions of the trustee and the young black college student. Through all the chaos, the narrator manages to get the recovered Mr. Norton back to the campus after a day of unusual events.
Upon returning to the school he is fearful of the reaction of the day's incidents from college president Dr. Bledsoe. At any rate, insight into Dr. Bledsoe's knowledge of the events and the narrator's future at the campus is somewhat prolonged as an important visitor arrives. The narrator views a sermon by the highly respected Reverend Homer A. Barbee. Barbee, who is blind, delivers a speech about the legacy of the college's founder, with such passion and resonance that he comes vividly alive to the narrator; his voice makes up for his blindness. The narrator is so inspired by the speech that he feels impassioned like never before to contribute to the college's legacy. However, all his dreams are shattered as a meeting with Bledsoe reveals his fate. Fearing that the college's funds will be jeopardized by the incidents that occurred, college president Dr. Bledsoe immediately expels the narrator. While the Invisible Man once aspired to be like Bledsoe, he realizes that the man has portrayed himself as a black stereotype in order to succeed in the white-dominated society. This serves as the first epiphany among many in the narrator realizing his invisibility. This epiphany is not yet complete when Bledsoe gives him several letters of recommendation to help him find work in the north. Upon arriving in New York, the narrator distributes the letters with no success. From the recipient of the final letter, the narrator learns that the letters instructed various friends of the school to assist Dr. Bledsoe in keeping the narrator deceived about his chances at returning to school - that is do not hire the narrator and do not inform him of the contents of the note.
He eventually gets a job in the boiler room of a paint factory in a company renowned for its white paints. The man in charge of the boiler room, Lucius Brockway, is extremely paranoid and thinks that the narrator has come to take his job. He is also extremely loyal to the company's owner, who once paid him a personal visit. When the narrator tells him about a union meeting he happened upon, Brockway is outraged, and attacks him. They fight, and Brockway tricks him into turning a wrong valve and causing a boiler to explode. Brockway escapes, but the narrator is hospitalized after the blast. While hospitalized, the narrator overhears doctors discussing him as a mental health patient. He learns through their discussion that shock treatment has been performed on him.
After the shock treatments, the narrator attempts to return to his residence when he feels overwhelmed by a certain dizziness and faints on the streets of Harlem. He is taken to the residence of a kind, old-fashioned woman by the name of Mary. Mary is down-to-earth and reminds the narrator of his relatives in the South and friends at the college. Mary somewhat serves as a mother figure for the narrator.
No longer able to work at the factory, the narrator wanders the streets of New York. Eventually, he comes across an elderly couple being evicted from their apartment and gives an important speech rallying passers-by to their cause. The onlookers, angry at the marshal in charge of the eviction, charge past him and start a riot. His otherwise powerful speech brings him to the attention of the Brotherhood, an equality-minded organization with obvious communist overtones, though the word Communist is never used in the novel. Their leader, Brother Jack, who witnessed the speech and the riot, recruits him and begins training him as an orator, with the intention of uniting New York's black community.
The narrator is at first happy to be making a difference in the world, "making history," in his new job. He gives several successful speeches and is soon promoted to head the Brotherhood's work in Harlem. While for the most part his rallies go smoothly, he soon encounters trouble from Ras the Exhorter, a fanatical black nationalist in the vein of Marcus Garvey who believes that the Brotherhood is controlled by whites. Ras tells this to the narrator and Tod Clifton, a youth leader of the Brotherhood, neither of whom seem to be swayed by his words.
Soon the narrator's name is all over Harlem, and a magazine calls to interview him. Though he tries to convince them to interview Tod Clifton instead, they insist upon him. When the article comes out, one brother criticizes him for taking personal credit for the work, instead of emphasizing the whole of the Brotherhood. Though his work has been impeccable, the Brotherhood's ruling committee decides to take him out of Harlem and set him to work in a new part of town.
When he returns to Harlem, Tod Clifton has disappeared. When the narrator finds him, he realizes that Clifton has become disillusioned with the Brotherhood, and has quit. Clifton is selling dancing Sambo dolls on the street, mocking the organization he once believed in. He is shot to death by a police officer in a scuffle. At Clifton's funeral, the narrator rallies crowds to win back his former widespread Harlem support and delivers a rousing speech, but he is censured by the Brotherhood for praising a man who would sell such dolls.
Walking along the street one day, the narrator is spotted by Ras and roughed up by his men. He buys sunglasses and a hat as a disguise, and is mistaken for a man named Rinehart in a number of different scenarios: first, as a lover, then, a hipster, a gambler, a briber, and, finally, as a reverend. He sees that Rinehart has adapted to white society, at the cost of his own identity. This causes the narrator to see that his own identity is not of importance to the Brotherhood, but only his blackness. He decides to take his grandfather's dying advice to "over come 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction. . ." and "yes" the Brotherhood to death, by making it appear that the Harlem membership is thriving when in reality it is crumbling.
The novel ends with a massive Harlem race riot, fueled by anger over Clifton's death and the tension between the Brotherhood and the followers of Ras. Riding a horse in full tribal regalia, Ras orders the narrator hanged and throws a spear at him. The narrator hurls the spear back, piercing Ras' cheek. He now realizes that even in trying to subvert the Brotherhood, he has only aided its white-controlled interests in helping to start a race riot that will generate sympathy and propaganda for the organization. Blinded by his epiphany, the narrator runs away, and is soon accosted by a group of men for his briefcase. He once again flees and the narrator falls down a manhole, where he is taunted by his pursuers. Rather than try to escape, he decides to make a new life for himself underground, invisible. As mentioned at the beginning of the story, he taps an electric wire running into the building so he can power his collection of 1,369 bulbs in the basement, hidden from the power company.
The story ends with the narrator musing over the problems of his life. The story begins from where it started; the narrator is still in the same spot. However, at the end of the novel, the narrator is ready to resurface because "overt action" has already taken place. This could be that, in telling us the story, the narrator has already made a political statement where change could occur. Storytelling, then, and the preservation of history of these invisible individuals is what causes political change.
Review: The book's main theme is the invisibility of the underdog. As the title suggests, the main character is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype, not as a real person. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, he comes to embrace it in the end. He realizes there are a number of advantages to it that allow him to remain undetected and inconspicuous. In all other parts of the country people live in a kind of vastly standardized cultural prairie, a sort of infinite Middle West, and that means that they don't really live and they don't really do anything.
Most Americans thus are Invisible.
I previously enjoyed Native Son because the plot had twists and turns like you were riding a roller coaster. Invisible Man had twists and turns, but more like g-force nightmare 180 degree hairpins late at night on a mountain road with a 500 foot drop while you are tipsy from alcohol and altitude, with a crazed nymphomaniac in the passenger seat insisting on giving you a blowjob.
And the writing! Ralph Ellison can make words open up the page like Alice's looking glass, and draw you into scenes like you are there, and all the weird awful crap that happens is affecting you right in the room. Early in the book there is a scene where the protagonist is invited to give a speech to a Chamber of Commerce meeting. It is one of the best written scenes I've ever experienced in any novel. Sex! Violence! Betrayal! More violence! More Betrayal! And THEN he has to give the speech to these men who have shown themselves to be total savages, and act like one of my UMTYMP honors students giving a valedictory speech at graduation.
However I could not find sympathy for the main character, it seemed as if he chose the scrapes he got himself into.
Opening Line: “It goes a long way back, some twenty years.”
Closing Line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”
Quotes: “How stupid could people be? Was everyone nuts?”
Rating: Mediocre.

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