The Good: Character, Narrative Quality, Sweeping themes, every single word!
The Bad: NONE! Not a one!
The Basics: Invisible Man is a rarity in American literature, a perfect novel!
Every now and then, we run into an impossible goal: throwing a perfect game, singing on the same stage as our musical icons, writing something unparalleled in the history of literature. One of my goals became impossible in 1994, a year before I read Invisible Man and the goal was to meet Ralph Ellison for he has, in Invisible Man, created the perfect novel and to meet such a man and tap his brain would have been incredible.
Invisible Man is the type of novel most people don't pick up unless they're forced to for a college class. It's also a piece that enriches all who do make the effort.
On the plot front, the novel is about a young man's journey from the South to Harlem and the people he meets along the way who challenge him. The unnamed narrator journeys as a black man into white America tossed among forces that seek to control him and keep him in his place. After being expelled from a black school for showing one of the white patrons of the school the slums where some of the lower-class blacks live, the narrator journey's North to find work. Initially thwarted by the anti-recommendations of the university's chancellor, the narrator soon finds work and eventually falls in with a group of radicals who are working together for goals that are essentially Marxist. As the narrator becomes a leader in Harlem's new progressive community, he finds himself the target of the ambitions and machinations of others' politics and he finds himself in a struggle for his life, his freedom and the strength of his ideology.
On the character level, the volume is about the sum of human emotion and experience. That is to say Invisible Man is the grand exploration of what makes us human both individually and as a society. The unnamed narrator of Invisible Man is an outsider through and through who must rise above the limitations imposed upon him by an often racist society that seeks to use him as a tool and exploit him rather than acknowledge his individuality and his rights to freedom and self-determination.
No novel written succeeds so admirably or so poetically in capturing the loss and confusion of being a human in a world bigger than we are better than Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison masterfully creates a world for the reader using poetics and diction more often found in the works of jazz musicians than novelists. He writes in flowing lines that express the loneliness of his protagonist with a wrenching sense of the size of the world relative to the smallness of our hero. From the opening in the protagonist's well-lit pit through the battles the narrator finds himself a part of, the language is tight, precise and immediately evocative of imagery that puts the reader firmly in the time and place of the novel.
To say much more - or even what I've said - is to do the novel an injustice. It is to simplify the grandeur and scope of a simply astounding piece of literature. Go get the book, don't even read the back, open it up and begin in the hole with the narrator. Let it be a pure experience.
There are no drawbacks to this book. Not a one. The easy poke is to say "Oh, the novel fails because the narrator doesn't even have a name!" The truth, however, is that until you try to describe the novel to another, it's easy to read and not even notice that the narrator lacks a name. The reason he does is because he is all of us.
Escape the ordinary for the extraordinary.
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© 2010, 2007, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.