Thursday, June 13, 2013

Book 127, United States: "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

You know what I've missed? Honest-to-goodness classics. Rich, crazy, multi-layered texts; timeless texts; immortal texts; texts that've been chattered about by scholars and hipsters for years, but go untouched on my library shelves (yes, our house has so many books that we call the shelves a library) just because I haven't gotten my arse around to reading them.

There are a lot of Great American Novels. According to the lists, I ought to be reading The Great Gatsby, but that's a brief little thing I might actually persuade myself to read casually. I've read Moby Dick and Lolita and Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird and Beloved already... but what about this 581-page tome, that I used to get confused with HG Wells's sci fi novella of a nearly identical name?

And honestly, this was just the ticket. A real shock to the senses after Triptych - a reminder of how recently in history black Americans were oppressed beyond hope. Published in 1952, it tells the story of a young black man from the South, unnamed, but smart enough to win a scholarship to a black university, where he has dreams of becoming a respected, upstanding member of the black community - only to get thrown out under ludicrous circumstances by the college president Dr Bledsoe (also black) and being forced to seek employment in New York City.

We've got an element of the picaresque novel going on here - he gets rejected from all the white-collar jobs he applies for, he gets into an accident in a paint factory after fighting with an old-timer black employee who mixes the paint, he gets lobotomised by the company's doctors, squats a lady's house in Harlem and then ends up as a community organiser for the Communist Party.

But unlike the innocent protagonist of a picaresque, this guy's character develops - he gets disillusioned more and more deeply with every institution he turns to, including the Communist Party (which was in fact one of the few groups that advocated for equal rights for blacks and whites in the 1950s - shades of Burgher's Daughter, here). And it's the struggle of "the Brotherhood", as he calls it, that dominates the novel - this strange place where there's equality but there isn't equality, where jungle-fever-obsessed white ladies pursue him at talks on "the Woman Question" (there's a lot to say about gender relations in here) and fellow black activists have to stand against the Africanist racism of Ras the Exhorter, who wants them lynched for working with the white man. White-dominated institutions using black people to push down black people - same strategy of divide and rule that's been used and is still used by various forces throughout history.

The writing's brilliant, of course. They talk about the jazz and the Ebonics that got transcribed in this text, but there's also honest-to-goodness textual modernism, weird dream sequences and chaotic passages that turn off more wary readers during the prologue. Ellison abandoned the old-school black lit genre of naturalism for the purposes of this work: he quotes Melville and Eliot in his opening, but his tale of an outsider, who's abandoned civilisation because of his awareness of its utter hopelessness, who must resort to new ways of speaking to record his ideas, reminds me of Lu Xun's Diary of a Madman, although it's more likely that he was influenced by Nikolai Gogol's tale of the same name. (There really are a limited number of cool titles to go around, eh?)

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Representative quote:  "So I'd accept it, I'd explore it, rine and heart. I'd plunge into it with both feet and they'd gag. Oh, but wouldn't they gag. I didn't know what my grandfather had meant, but I was ready to test his advice. I'd overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins, I'd agree them to death and destruction. Yes, and I'd let them swallow me until they vomited or burst wide open. Let them gag on what they refused to see. Let them choke on it. That was one risk they hadn't calculated. That was a risk they had never dreamt of in their philosophy. Nor did they know that they could discipline themselves to destruction, that saying "yes" could destroy them. Oh, I'd yes them, but wouldn't I yes them! I'd yes them till they puked and rolled in it. All they wanted of me was one belch of affirmation and I'd bellow it out loud. Yes! Yes! YES! That was all anyone wanted of us, that we should be heard and not seen, and then heard only in one big optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh! All right, I'd yea, yea and oui, oui and si, si and see, see them too; and I'd walk around in their guts with hobnailed boots. Even those super-big shots whom I'd never seen at committee meetings. They wanted a machine? Very well, I'd become a supersensitive confirmer of their misconceptions, and just to hold their confidence I'd try to be right part of the time. Oh, I'd serve them well and I'd make invisibility felt if not seen, and they'd learn that it could be as polluting as a decaying body, or a piece of bad meat in a stew. And if I got hurt? Very well again. Besides, didn't they believe in sacrifice? They were the subtle thinkers -- would this be treachery? Did the word apply to an invisible man? Could they recognize choice in that which wasn't seen . . . ?"

Next book: Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, from Canada.

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