So this year for NaNoReMo I tackled Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man – a modern classic sitting on my shelf since at least 2007, waiting six years for me to finally get to it. I was in part inspired due to it being on both Time and the Modern Library’s list of best English language novels of the century. I finished it a while ago, but waited until February was over to post. So here's my view of the work, now sitting on my shelf, chronologically situated between 'A Streetcar Named Desire' and '1984'.
Thar be spoilers ahead, maties.
What to say about this book…The Preface basically ruined it for me. Suspense doesn’t work very well if you’re telling a frame story. Sure, there was the potential for an unreliable narrator, and in some ways the nameless invisible man was, but not that unreliable. You’re waiting to see the fellow’s descent, but you already know where he ends up. The story of how he got there isn’t so strange as to leave me balking or stunned. It’s vividly told, although weirdly balanced between scenes and episodes of importance and seeming unimportance for an effect I didn’t care for. He spends a short time with Mary, and least expositionally, and then she is critically important in his mind later on.
It had been a long time since I’d read a novel in first person, though. It was almost disorienting. As an underground man, he doesn’t rival Dostoevsky in perversity (few could) and as a social critic his criticism is always the same, always of betrayal. Perhaps that’s powerful, and indeed that is why he considers himself invisible, as no one from Booker T Washington (smile and get along camp) to communism (we are all brothers camp) to African nationalism (we are all blacks camp) can include him. But it just feels muddled, somewhere between focusing on these issues, and being an autobiography. Whole sections feel unwarranted (screwing up while mixing paint) as they later have no connection or relevance to the issues. Is that because that’s how life is lived? Maybe that’s what was attempted to be conveyed. Is this some sort of inversion of standard novel technique, where it doesn’t all end up tied in a bow, and parts are superfluous, and the narrator tells his story badly? If so it did a nice job. Why he would muck that up with a Preface that tells you what’s going to happen, I don’t know. It’s like the frame the Hollywood studios added around Invasion of the Body Snatchers – without it it’s gold, but with it, it’s just another B movie.
Anyways. Here end the spoilers.
Another 13 people on my therapeutic campus completed their NaNoReMo challenges, from an initial pool of about 40. Not too bad. I hope they did for the novel, rather than the ice cream social that goes with completion. But either way, fourteen novels, including mine, isn’t too shabby.