Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Though I started this book with the news that many people find it just a little too long, knowing that must have helped, as I was not overwhelmed by the length at all. Though everything is drawn-out in this book — like this sentence at the beginning of chapter five, as the students are walking to chapel for vespers:

Above the decorous walking around me, sounds of footsteps leaving the verandas of far-flung buildings and moving toward the walks and over the walks to the asphalt drives lined with whitewashed stones, those cryptic messages for men and women, boys and girls heading quietly toward where the visitors waited, and we moving not in the mood of worship but of judgment; as though even here in the filtering dusk, here beneath the deep indigo sky, here, alive with looping swifts and darting moths, here in the hereness of the night not yet lighted by the moon that looms blood-red behind the chapel like a fallen sun, its radiance shedding not upon the here-dusk of twittering bats, nor on the there-night of cricket and whippoorwill, but focused short-rayed upon our place of convergence; and we drifting forward with rigid motions, limbs stiff and voices now silent, as though on exhibit even in the dark, and the moon a white man’s bloodshot eye.

I was surprised by how experimental this narrative feels overall, with some incredibly surreal sections and others entirely decked out in layers of metaphors. Though it is an entirely critical look at race in the mid-nineteenth century, spanning over many different arenas to portray just how pervasive problems are in the culture of the United States, the language and atmosphere of the story is often quite beautiful. This is the sort of book that makes me wish I was studying literature, to spend some time reading lit theory and exploring the depths of the story. While an ever-recurring feeling of hopes dashed threads throughout, I found something uplifting about the brutal truth of it all or perhaps the fact that these truths were told against the odds.

Invisible Man was the only novel published by Ellison in his lifetime. Thanks to John F. Callahan, his literary executor, a bit of his second (2,000-page) manuscript was published as Juneteenth in 1999. A fuller version of that manuscript (also edited by Callahan) will be published by Random House this summer as Three Days Before the Shooting.