Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book #56 - Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)

What an odd book this was.  And since the main character seems to drink a lot of bourbon, I decided to start this blog entry by sipping on some E.H. Taylor, Jr. Warehouse C Tornado Surviving bourbon.  Now I know, "WTF is that shit?", you're asking.  Well, you can read the story here.  Seems like a batch of bourbon was aging in barrels stacked in a warehouse that was damaged by a tornado.  The storm blew the roof off the warehouse and the barrels aged for part of the summer while exposed to the elements as the roof was repaired.  This was a marketing person's wet dream come true, because they could then sell this bourbon as "tornado surviving" and build up a mystique and claim that the exposure to the elements made the bourbon ultra delicious and one-of-a-kind.  Well, the bourbon is pretty damn good, and it better be for the pirce I paid, but it begs the question that if bourbon is so much better when aged partly without a roof, then why don't they make the bourbon aging warehouses with roofs that can be rolled back for part of the summer.  Just asking...

Anyway, back to the book "Invisible Man", whose main character is buffeted by the tornado of racism that existed in this country during the 1930s/1940s when the novel takes place.  Sorry, couldn't resist that one.  But seriously, this novel is the story of a black man from the south, who gets pushed around, used, and taken advantage of by a myriad of people in the novel.  Who is this man?  We never know...his name is never given once during the novel, which fits in with the whole invisibility theme.  

When we meet him, he's graduating from high school in a small southern town, and gives a well-received speech at his graduation.  He's invited to give a reprise of his speech in front of a group of prominent white men.  But when he gets to the meeting where he is to speak, he's thrown into this blindfolded free-for-all boxing match with other young black men, where they are cheered on as they pummel each other into bloody pulps.  They are promised prize money in the form of gold coins, which are thrown at them in the ring.  But when they reach down to grab the coins, they find the mat they're on is electrified, and so they all get terribly shocked whenever they reach down for the coins.  And then when it's over, it turns out the gold coins are fake.  The white men have a wonderful laugh at all this, then they have the main nameless character give his graduation speech.  By this point he's bloody from the ring, and shaky from the electric shocks, but he gives his speech.  They reward him with a briefcase and a college scholarship.  

That last paragraph I wrote does not do the book justice...Ellison is a great writer, and this whole scene is absolutely horrifying.  

And then it doesn't get any better for the poor narrator.  He goes off to a negro college (clearly modeled on the Tuskeegee Institute...good thing I read Booker T. Washington's autobiography before this novel) where he does extremely well, but gets expelled after an incident with a white trustee of the university, with whom he makes a series of naive mistakes while giving him a tour of the countryside around the school, exposing him to a side of black southern culture that the black president of the college would rather the trustee have not seen (including a poor farmer who committed incest with his daughter and an all-black saloon full of mental patients on a field trip).  So the narrator gets expelled and sent to New York City by the college president, who promises he can come back after working for a year.  But the college president screws the kid over by making it practically impossible for him to find a job in New York by giving him sealed letters of recommendations that basically say "Don't hire this guy".  So he's abused by white men and then screwed over by a black man who doesn't want to offend the white trustees.  And it just doesn't stop.  He gets a job, but is screwed over and seriously injured by an older black worker who thinks he might be involved in a labor union.  He is sent to the company infirmary where a doctor gives him experimental electroshock therapy.  Then he joins a group called The Brotherhood, a political organization with both whites and black members who are working together to build a better, classless society.  Their political ideology is clearly modeled on communism, and they call one another, both black and white, "brother".  But in the end it turns out that The Brotherhood doesn't care about the plight of the blacks in Harlem, and sells them out for their own agenda.  On and on it goes.  The novels ends with the narrator hiding away in a basement, living invisibly among whites, but planning to re-emerge into society, and to lose his invisibility.

It's an odd book.  When I read the prologue, I got worried because while it's very poetic it's also hard to follow just what the hell is going on.  But then the book gets into a groove and was a great read.  Nonetheless, Ellison's writing style is way more poetic and laden with symbolism than, say Richard Wright's Native Son.  In fact, it almost seems like everything in this novel is symbolic, and has more meaning than what is on the surface.  An old metal chain link from a slave's leg irons, the idea of invisibility, a paper doll...once you start noticing these things, the reader realizes that so much that happens or is described in the book is symbolic or representative of something else.  Many, many books use symbolism, but this one takes it to a whole different level.  It's an odd style.

Parts of the book feel quite dated.  The whole thread plot with The Brotherhood is clearly meant to represent communist organizations which were prevalent in the 1940s, but which are long gone today.  And this takes up about half the book, so clearly it was very important to Ellison.  Apparently he was a communist for awhile but became disillusioned with the movement, and this clearly shows  Nowadays, a group like this seems antiquated.  And society's attitudes towards race have certainly changed incredibly in the last 70 years.  After all, in this era of a black president we've clearly moved into a post-racism era.  Ha ha, just kidding.

Yet despite the sometimes dated feeling of this book, it holds timeless universal truths as well.  The concept of the Invisible Man, for instance.  How many people are ignored by society, in general and on a day-to-day basis, because their skin is a different color, or because they don't have enough money, or because they don't fit into society's idea of what a "successful" person should look like or act like?  This book may specifically be about a black man living through racism in the 20th century, but it's also about a broader aspect of the human condition.  In today's political parlance some might say it's about the 99% who are invisible compared to the 1% who have their hands on the wheel of the world.  There will always be oppression and there will always be oppressors and the oppressed, and for that reason this book can transcend the specific time and place it describes and speak to universal truths.  That's the genius of Ralph Ellison's book, and that's the reason why it remains a classic today.  It may be the great African-American novel but it's also a great novel.