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And what Netty thinks about being an Invisible Man …

November 22, 2009

Ah, race relations. What a hoary old chestnut. And while next month Andy and I will be discussing this subject again in the context of indigenous Australians, the past month found us delving into the topic in its American circumstances, courtesy of African-American writer Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

I couldn’t help but wonder after finishing a book considered “the great American Negro novel”, and first published back in 1952, what its author would think about it all if he were still alive today (he died in 1994 at the age of 80). After all, his country of birth now has its first black president. But anyone who thinks the black-white divide in the United States has been completely bridged is kidding themselves. (More on which later, in my limited personal experience.)

Andy chose this one, and I have to confess my ignorance – I had heard of neither the book nor its author. If I had been an American school student, undoubtedly I would have subjected my literature teacher to an unbearable treatise on its social history and symbolism – and there’s enough of it in here to sink a ship. Instead, I could but only glimpse into and marvel at a world very, very foreign to me.

I am loath to pretend I have any real understanding of this subject, but I have spent a bit of time in the US and seen a few things there which opened my eyes that bit wider. I have driven through Deep South towns segregated in all but name, even in 2000+, and I know what it’s like to be the only white person in an all-black place where I was clearly not supposed to have been (my tip for anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation – a very cheery “g’day, mate” can and will save you from any potentially hairy situations). And there is little doubt in my mind that there are many fewer obstacles to jump having been lucky enough to have been born caucasian – and not just in the US, either.

But back to the book. Invisible Man was the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime and, like many debutants, it apparently had myriad parallels with its author’s life. Although I doubt Ellison ever lived in a hole in the ground (shades of Haruki Murakami there).

An unnamed narrator, socially invisible, having retreated from the world and living illegally in an illuminated basement, recounts his life story. And what a story it is.

As a student, the narrator is invited to give his graduation speech before the town’s leading white citizens, before which he is made to take part in a Battle Royal – the most compelling, albeit sickening, chapter in the book – with his fellow students for the entertainment of the gathering. After this humilation, he receives a scholarship to a black college, where an incident involving a rich trustee sets in chain events leading to his expulsion and passage to New York.

There, the narrator labours under a set of false expectations, but finally gets a job in a paint factory (turning black paint white, natch, in another great piece of symbolism, which is littered throughout the pages). A workplace accident sees him hospitalised and forced to undergo a series of shock treatments before he is released onto the streets and finds refuge with Mary, who takes him in and provides care. A street encounter with an elderly couple being evicted from their home before a crowd of onlookers inspires the narrator to give an impromptu speech that brings him to the attention of the Brotherhood – and its treasure trove of memorable characters – which recruits and exploits him.

The defection of fellow Brotherhood youth leader Tod Clifton, the narrator’s continual scuffles with black nationalist Ras The Exhorter (later Destroyer), his growing disillusionment with his own organisation and a series of blackly comic identity issues finally comes to a head at a Harlem race riot that seals his fate. And so the novel comes full circle, but not without hinting at a glimmer of real light ahead for its protagonist, whose story is not yet complete.

All in all Invisible Man is a cracking story, and despite its length – close to 600 pages – immensely readable and hard to put down. Somewhat dated now, yes, but a fascinating fictionalised snapshot of a very important time in American history and a timeless subject that will continue to resonate throughout the ages.

So as a man in a hat once said, do yourself a favour. Four stars from me.

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