Invisible Man – Yo, motherfouler, wanna get hep with what Andy thinks? Oh dear lord…November 13, 2009
Motherfouler. Yep. I’ll explain later. Meanwhile if you’ve never clicked on the “Follow this blog” button to the right do it. Now. No questions. Just do it. Now. Now. You’ve been told.
I’ve had trouble blogging about this book. Not because it isn’t good – well, it’s not good, it’s great. And not because I didn’t love it – well, I didn’t love it, I liked it. Having read it, finally – it’s one of those novels that I’ve known about for years, presumably since I picked it up in a secondhand bookshop as a teenager thinking it was HG Wells’ scifi yarn – I can understand why it’s so highly regarded but it didn’t drag me to the emotional depths that perhaps require a second or third reading. Or perhaps emotional depths are not what Ellison was aiming for. If he was aiming for intellectual and social and political and ethical engagement then yeah, I guess he kind of hit it on the head. There is definitely a level of emotional engagement too, but I’m not sure it’s as deep an engagement as you’d expect when you read a story as raw as this. There’s a distance here, not quite a wanky metafictive distance but a distance nonetheless. Anyhoo.
My response to this book is also, I suspect, tempered by the fact that I’m an Aussie, not a Yank, and that our “race” problems are different; and also, weirdly, because America’s historical racism has been in the Australian news recently. Had the idiots in charge of Hey Hey’s reunion specials not allowed a bunch of fucktards sending up the Jackson Five on their stage a few weeks ago my intro to this blog would probably have read something like “Invisible Man – what Andy thought after he’d wiped the blackface off”. Obviously given what’s happened that would be completely inappropriate and not remotely funny; whereas if what happened hadn’t happened it would’ve been completely inappropriate and (hopefully) vaguely, subversively amusing. I remember the UK’s Black and White Minstrel Show. I’m 40. When you realise this novel was begun in the mid 1940s and published in 1952, that minstrel show’s existence in the ’70s is inexplicable. In his introduction to the 1981 edition of Invisible Man Ellison mentions seeing a Tom Show while he was writing or thinking about writing his novel. He was surprised to see it. In the ’40s. A Tom Show (which takes its name from Uncle Tom’s Cabin) isn’t, as far as I can tell, quite a black and white minstrel show, but the ideology behind them is similar. So let’s just explore that once more. In the 1940s a young, politically aware black American writer was disturbed to see a staged mockery of his people’s history. In 2009 Daryl Somers thinks it’s hilarious. Um.
I haven’t said a word about the book. The book is good. The book is very good. I’m not sure that its allegedly jazz-inspired free-form narrative is quite as revolutionary as some people seem to think but that might be because I read it nearly 60 years after it was published. Ellison employs the surreal and the bizarre beautifully but often those scenes are presented quite prosaically, whereas some of the grungier, more down to earth material is depicted with less realism. And I like that balance.
Invisible Man is revered for its use of symbolism and I’m sure a second reading would throw up much more profound images than these, but the blindness of the preacher Barbee (blindness making everything invisible) and Brother Jack’s glass eye (which doesn’t actually make anything invisible, unless of course you’re focusing on one thing and only one thing and… oh! that’s what the Brotherhood was doing!) are fairly obvious but also work well.
Far more impressive, and incredibly courageous I suspect, is Ellison’s willingness to repudiate many of the paradigms that were being presented in the ’50s as the source of black America’s liberation. Bledsoe’s hypocritical bootlicking, Barbee’s empty mythologising, Brockway’s anti-collective individualism, Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer’s murderous black nationalism, Brother Jack’s heartless – well, it’s never called communism, it’s never called Marxist-Leninism, but that’s what it is. Ellison presents each of these options with varying degrees of depth and dismisses them (rightly, I reckon) completely. Or perhaps not completely. Perhaps Ellison called himself an anarchist, or a socialist libertarian, but I doubt it. Given his narrator’s experiences though, and given everything he’s said and done and believed, and taking into account the betrayals he’s experienced and the naivety of which he’s been so savagely relieved, given all of that I have to wonder how Ellison’s narrator would label himself when he emerges from his “cave” at the novel’s end. And he wouldn’t want to label himself, obviously, because everybody’s been trying to label him for pages and pages and pages but I think if he was to try to describe himself he’d be anti-authoritarian but also profoundly communal (communist is just too loaded a word, don’t you think?) and look, I reckon he’d probably have a very similar worldview to mine.
I probably should re-read the book.
Anyway, motherfouler. That word occurs a number of times in the last few chapters. This from a man who is prepared, in the ’50s, to use the word cunt once and the word fuck at least a couple of times. So why motherfouler? Why not your bogstandard whoyoulookinatthen motherfucker? What’s wrong with motherfucker? Obviously there’s something wrong with the word motherfucker, otherwise the motherfucker would’ve used it. And he didn’t. Although pretty fucking obviously he wanted to. What’s with that?
So yo, motherfuckers, I’m off. There’s Vietnamese to be eatin’.