Brian Bess's Reviews > Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
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Aug 04, 12

it was amazing
Read in August, 2012

I was led to re-read this amazing novel almost accidentally as it was one of the more interesting ebooks that was available through my library without placing a hold for me to download to my Kindle. I had read it previously about 25 years ago and I was astonished at how little I remembered from the previous reading. I knew I liked it a lot but I recalled very few details from the previous reading so it was as though I was reading it for the first time.
Reinforced by the fact that Ellison himself cites the influence in his forward to the 30th anniversary edition, I was struck by this novel as an African-American Notes from the Underground. The invisible man is more sympathetic and less abrasive than the Underground Man and one can sympathize with him as he explains what led him from his earlier naïve and idealistic state to his current detached but not quite misanthropic view of humanity. The entire novel has a nightmarish quality and recalls the paranoia of Kafka with its characters full of suspicion that are almost completely lacking in compassion.
The novel is even more impressive considering when it was written, in the late 40’s and early 50’s, a time of very rigidly enforced segregation. While it is obviously about racial attitudes and identity, I often was not aware of the race of certain characters, even though the ‘Brotherhood’ that the narrator joins and for which he becomes an accidental spokesman is essentially a Communist organization manipulated and dominated by white liberals. The narrator’s issues of identity transcend race. His adventures flow into one another by happenstance and he is labeled and mislabeled consistently by black as well as white characters. He has sexual encounters with white women which, while not shocking in the 21st century, must have been quite disturbing to many readers in the early 50’s. He stands up to the white subjugators as much as to other blacks, many of whom have their own expectations of the roles he should play.
Much of the novel is quite riveting and swept this reader along a wave of passion and righteous indignation. However, much of it did not feel realistic to me, nor was it intended to be. It possesses the logic of a dream. Aside from the narrator, the only person that is not selfish, mean-spirited, oblivious or petty is the elderly black woman Mary Rambo, who is virtually saintlike. Aside from the machinations of the plot which are sometimes implausible, the novel holds up sixty plus years later because the spiritual journey the narrator undergoes leads him beyond his identity as an African American. He strips away all of the labels that have been pinned on him until all he is left with is his own mind. His underground state is necessary although he acknowledges that, like all hibernations, it must come to an end. While the nightmarish plot may not be plausible, the arc of the title character’s evolution is completely convincing and sustains most of the novel’s power. It is the primary reason the novel does not feel dated and largely why it is still read today.
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