Laura Jean's Reviews > Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Aug 29, 2010

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bookshelves: being-black-in-america
Read from July 29 to August 29, 2010

There were passages in this book that were so beautiful that I nearly wept. And that this book was written, that it was published, that it was read as widely as it has been, is its own kind of miracle amidst the politics of the 20th century.

However, I can't rate it more than three stars.

Errol McDonald used to ask us in class, "Is he a character?" and it was always a trick question about whatever book we were reading, but the point is, he was trying to get us to talk about "character" as something other than just "person" and instead talk about "character" as a literary tool. Sometimes a character in a book IS a literary tool, although if that character does not still have the characteristics of a person, it becomes difficult to see that character as anything but a contrivance of the author.

This conceit, that the character is just a contrivance of the author, is absurd, because of COURSE that character is a contrivance of the author, and of COURSE the things that are happening to that character are a contrivance of the author, but as your reader, I am not supposed to KNOW that. I am not supposed to see the mechanics of your character making and plot devicing.

All which is to say—this book is too transparent. The narrator is such a passive body flung through circumstance and manipulated by the people he encounters (all in the service of furthering the plot and ideological point of the book) that he ceases to be of any interest. The things he SEES are of interest. But he himself disappears.

Perhaps, because he is THE invisible man, he is supposed to disappear. Perhaps he is just a totem of the wider experience of being black in America at that time. Perhaps, as Errol might indicate, he is not a character at all.

But fundamentally, I think the story could have benefited from having a narrator that WAS SOMEONE, and not someone to whom things happened. In the same way, there are many passages of narrative handholding that overkilled and undermined the very points they were trying to illustrate regarding questions of power and dominance and race and geography and age and class and sexism.

I still think the book is good. And I still think it contains flashes of brilliance. But I think those flashes are dulled by the pedantry of it, and by the narrator-as-simulacrum orchestration of the whole plot.
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