Ducking out of the Nebulas on Saturday morning so I could finish reading Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

invisiblemancover1The Nebulas were super fun. I’m glad I didn’t give up on this whole ‘going to conventions’ thing after a few lonely experiences. But, you know, as fun as talking to other writers is: it also somehow makes me forget about books. And I think that part of that is just me. I get too zoned-in on the intricacies of career stuff (which I actually spend a surprising amount of time thinking about, I’ve realized) and I forget that, as artists, we also have this whole noncommercial side of things that we could be talking about.

Anyway, yesterday morning, I at the last moment became strangely reluctant to head down to the Nebulas and instead I decided to slough off the morning agenda (which was just the SFWA business meeting, anyway–ugh) and finish reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, which is a picaresque adventure about a young black man leaving the South in the 1940s and coming to New York and doing various…things. The book is, I think, the most famous intersection of African-American Literature and Modernist Literature, and I can absolutely see why it struck such a strong chord when it was published: it’s a really superb novel in exactly the way that modernist novels are supposed to be superb, not just as an evocation of a time and a place and a people, but also superb in terms of technical innovation.

Well, actually, I’m not really sure you’re allowed to say that novels are technically innovative. No matter what cool stuff some novel is doing, there’s always some crusty old person who’ll croak out the name of some Victorian or Chinese or Greek novelist who was doing it at the beginning of time. Technical innovation in fiction is rarely a startling thing; instead it’s usually a matter of a tiny refinement in someone else’s technique.

In this case, Invisible Man reminds me of nothing so much as Kafka’s The Castle. In both novels, we have everyman protagonists who are exploring an environment that is doing its best to expel them. The Castle is structured as a series of monologues. The surveyer, K, travels from house to inn to street-corner and meets various characters who then expound, at length, about…something. The monologues of The Castle don’t stick in your mind, because they’re not about concrete things, but there’s a feverishness to them–the characters know exactly what they want to say, even if they can’t quite make K understand them.

Invisible Man is similar. If one breaks it down, the bulk of the story is given over describing the events of five days, that are separated by many years and months.

  1. While a student at a historically black college, the narrator has chauffeur around a rich white donor.
  2. After being expelled from the university, the narrator goes to New York and gets a job at a paint factory, with various unsatisfactory results.
  3. The narrator makes an impromptu speech on the street and gets caught up with the communist party
  4. The narrator watches the murder of one of his fellow organizers
  5. The narrator gets caught up in a street riot

The joins between the sections are papered over fairly well, so it doesn’t feel disjointed, but this is decidedly not the typical way of structuring a novel. Furthermore, the point of the novel seems to be primarily to give voice to the various people that the narrator meets along the way. It’s only in the second half of the novel that the narrator comes out of the background and starts emoting and thinking a little bit. But even then, he by no means takes control of the narrative.

Anyway, because the book does not have a typical structure, it’s difficult to read it in the typical way. The individual episodes are extremely gripping and the book is much easier to follow (and remember) than The Castle (because everything is more firmly grounded in issues that the reader can understand). I could reel off a ton of wonderful parts of the book, like:

  • The white trustee makes the narrator pull over the car so he can talk, at length, with a black sharecropper who’s accused of impregnating his old daughter. The white trustee, who’s haunted by guilt, is fascinated, and keeps asking the sharecropper how he can be so, apparently, guilt-free.
  • A white fellow traveler attempts to get the narrator to star in her rape fantasy.
  • The narrator puts on a big hat and dark glasses and, when he wanders around Harlem, is mistaken for one specific pimp, named Rinehart: an enormously popular guy who’s been operating in the same territory as the narrator, but to vastly different ends.

Every incident in the book cranks it open and allows more and more of the world to pour in. The book is so alive. It doesn’t restrain itself, or shy away from letting us know that there is much more to the world than it can contain.

The difficulty is in piecing together what the book is about. And the reason it’s difficult is because the book constantly tells you what it’s about. The narrator goes on long monologues about why he’s gone into hiding and become invisible. But it remains opaque. The anger comes through very clearly, but the book is about much more than anger. In its deconstruction of Marxism, it feels like it goes further, and starts offering clues as to the development of a new consciousness. But the clues are veiled.

My favorite section of the book (the one that prompted me to tweet about how I couldn’t believe I’d never read it before) was a musing right at the beginning, where the narrator talks about bumping into a white man on the street and asking him to apologize and the white man refusing and then the narrator beating him nearly to death while the white man continues to refuse. And how he realized that the white man, even lying bloody on the street and close to death, still couldn’t see him: how, to the white man, this was a nightmare come to life, as if a ghost had jumped out of the darkness and started assaulting him. And because of that realization, the narrator lets the white man live.

Comments (



  1. cellenbogen

    I recently re-read this in advance of seeing the stage adaptation that was approved by the Ellison estate. It’s a remarkable piece that’s now on my ‘re-read every few years’ list. And I think you can say that there is something technically innovative about it. As you say, there’s not much to the plot. So what is it that causes the writing to stand up over time even if certain concepts it addresses (i.e., communism) now seem quite dated?

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      I don’t know, but it still feels very relevant. Perhaps because the party isn’t specifically communist–it could be any highly ideological movement. In its purges and its quest for purity, it resembles both modern libertarianism and modern feminism.

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