11 February 2009

"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

Invisible Man
Written by Ralph Ellison

Date of publication: 14 March 1995 (anniversary edition)
Cover price: $14.95
581 pages

The first time I read any portion of Invisible Man was for an English course I took in college. I was disappointed only to be assigned three or four excerpts to read, and that I did not have the time to read the entire novel then. I read the assigned excerpts, wrote my paper and held onto the book until time permitted me to revisit it in its entirety.

This story is set during the 1950s, and follows a young African-American man out of his high school graduation and into the harsh, racist world. Ellison tells us this tale in first person, though never identifying his narrator by name. There are a couple of instances where he skirts the issue of giving us his name, but it is important to the nature of the character that he remain anonymous. This is part of the narrator's--and Ellison's--thesis: that a young, African-American man can be entirely unseen by society.

Secondary to that thesis is that the ugliness of racism is not restricted to whites discriminating against blacks; indeed, while there are no full heroes to be found, some of the more upsetting incidents arise among the way African-Americans treat one another. Race is always a controversial subject, because many come to the discussion unwilling to abandon their preconceived ideas about the subject. Many who have never felt the sting of racism deny that it is even an issue at all, except by those making it one. Others are desperate for anyone to see their torment for what it is. What makes Invisible Man so captivating is that its portrayal of racists is not only entirely believable, but it explores the nuances and shades of racism that are often overlooked. By the end of the story, both narrator and reader have explored various brands of discrimination and come away simultaneously exasperated and determined to confront it.

Throughout Invisible Man, Ellison infuses his narrative with sexuality. Often, these otherwise erotic moments take place during more disturbing passages, such as the opening battle royal scene in which a nude white girl parades around while several African-American males compete in a sadistic show for the amusement of the old white men who run the town. The instances of sexuality heighten the tension, certainly, but they also serve another purpose: They make the story more intimate, as well as unsettling.

Invisible Man comes with my highest recommenation. It is a fascinating story full of rich characters and it is a complete head-trip. When I was first introduced to the novel, I had yet to develop Crohn's disease and I discovered quickly that I found a glass of bourbon went well with this novel. I can't imbibe anymore, but if you can, you may find the pairing very suitable.

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