Saturday, February 21, 2009

Invisible Man

I remember buying Invisible Man. It was 1999, and I was in my senior year of h.s. I took A.P. English...not for the college credits you could get, but because I liked to read, and in order to avoid being in classes with people who in some instances probably didn't know how to read, you had to take the honors/AP classes. Anyway, our teacher always gave us essays from old AP tests to practice our writing...we would be given a question and a list of books we could use to answer that question and then the rest of the class time to write our essay on the topic. Because this was practice and usually geared to get us thinking about a particular book we were reading in class, we weren't allowed to pick just anything off the list to write about. But I paid attention to what books were on the lists. I have always been competitive about reading...about making every effort to be well read, sometimes as or more well read than a specific person. The thought of being in a discussion with someone about literature - serious literature - and having to admit I hadn't read a particular book is a terrifying scenario for me. This is what constantly drives my Maybe I need other hobbies or something. Whatever. So this book, Invisible Man was a constant on these lists. I knew no one my age in my little region of the country had read this book. Most probably assumed it was the HG Wells book...if they assumed anything. I remember walking into the book store and buying Invisible Man.

The fact that it has taken me 10 years to just getting around to reading it should give you some indication of the shear volume of my book-backlog. I buy a book with every intention of reading it right away...sometimes going into a frenzy - I HAVE TO HAVE THIS BOOK NOW!!! - and it will sit on my bookshelf (or now, piles in front of my bookshelf) for YEARS before I actually get to picking it up. And not only did it take me 10 years to pick up this book, it took me four months to finish it...because honestly, I just wasn't into it.

I won't go into too much plot detail here, but I'll give a brief overview. Invisible Man is the story of an unnamed narrator, black, and when we're introduced, he's pretty much a secretly in the basement of a NYC apartment building. He begins his story as a high schooler, class valedictorian in the rural south. After some really strange experiences at a men's club where he was to deliver a speech...(a stag party, a battle royal, naked women, an electrified rug, fact so many strange things occur in the chapter that I had to look up a summary on sparknotes to make sure I was really getting what was going on)...he is awarded a scholarship to a historically black college (modeled after Tuskegee). The unnamed narrator attends the college, where he's a good student. One of the college trustees (Mr. Norton, white) comes to visit, and he's charged with driving the guy around for the afternoon. During the course of the drive, he happens upon the black shanty town on the outskirts of the school, where they meet a guy who got his daughter pregnant. Mr. Norton is so overcome by the story - not with disgust or anger, but just overcome - he asks the narrator to get him a drink. The only place he can do so is to take him to a bar/brothel called the Golden Day...where they happen upon a bunch of mental patients out for the day. A fight breaks out at the bar, Mr. Norton faints and is cared for my a crazy former physician, etc. When they finally get back to the college, the President is so angry with the narrator, he kicks him out of school.

The President tells him that he might be let back into the college in the fall, but sends him to New York City with some letters of introduction so the narrator can find work. The earnest narrator heads north and presents the letters to their addressee, but never hears back from any of them. After delivering the last letter, he finds out that the letters pretty much said, "Don't hire this kid" so he's kind of screwed. He finds a job in a paint factory. First he has to mix the white paint with soem drops of black stuff, which he screws up and is sent to work in the boiler room. He and the man in charge down there get into a fight, the man tricks the narrator into turning the wrong valve and the boiler explodes. The narrator is injured, finds himself in a hospital where he receives shock treatments, and then is released. He collapses on his way home to his Harlem apartment and is taken in by a nice woman named Mary. All this happens in the first 250+ pages of the book.

After weeks without a job, wandering around Harlem he comes upon an old couple being evicted from their apartment. the narrator is inspired and gives an impromptu speech, which leads the crowd to take the evicted couple's stuff back into their apartment. His speech is heard by some Communist leaders (called the Brotherhood), and the narrator is enlisted in a job giving speeches throughout Harlem to agitate and organize the local population. He's super popular, but becomes too much so...his other "Brothers" accuse him of focusing too much on himself and not enough on the Brotherhood and their message. He's transfered back and forth for a bit, and then is called to help quell a riot - modeled on the riot of 1943. Like the other scenes, things seem crazy, including rival agitator, Ras the Exhorter, riding a horse in full African garb complete with spear. Through it all, the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood used him to get exactly that result, and he decides to pretty much drop out of become invisible.

Ok, I said I was only going to give an overview, but I guess that was more than an overview. I skipped a lot of the end...there's just too much to try to describe. Invisible Man won the 1952 National Book Award, beating out Hemingway and Steinbeck. It brought him fame, but that fame stifled Ellison, and he was unable to publish another novel in his lifetime. There's a lot of themes in this book - invisibility and identity, racism, etc. It's obvious why it would be a ripe novel for AP English and people looking for an African-American literary perspective on these topics would find a lot of stuff here. But I just couldn't get into it. It failed to draw me in at the beginning - which might be as much my fault as Ellison's...a lot has been going on lately, and it started in November - and though the pace picked up about half-way through, I still wasn't interested. It's obviously an important book, and deserves to be on any Top 100 of the 20th Century list...but I just didn't like it very much. Sometimes I recognize that I don't like a particular work because it wasn't the right time for know, "we're just in two different phases of our lives", but I don't think that was the case for me and Invisible Man. *Sigh* Oh well. On to the next...

1 comment:

Thursday's Child said...

I also found Invisible Man to be an excellent read, but man were some parts of it confusing.

I checked out the Invisible Man section over at to help me through it, and that site really made sense of the whole thing to me.

Thanks for such a great review!