One of the things that I love about books is that there are so many that I have yet to read. Many of them will be classics that I will never forget. I had always been aware of Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) but remained in the dark about this classic book which was published in 1952. I noticed that I had it on my shelf and decided to see for myself why it remains so highly regarded. Having finished the book, I now understand why Ellison was ahead of his time and why this book is still relevant to this day.
The main character is the invisible man who begins by explaning that he lives in the basement of a building and gets his electricity by tapping into a power source. We are not sure why he is in the basement or for how long he will be there. He has very keen observations about society and its inablity to see him for the man that he is. It is clear that he has a story to tell and to do that he first tells us the story of his time in college. The short story about the incidents involving Mr. Norton set the course for the rest of the book and each development occurs almost like a chain reaction.
One day he is assigned to drive a trustee around the campus, however Mr. Norton as we soon learn, is not interested in the campus as he helped build the university. Mr. Norton desires new sights and the two take a detour on the back roads outside of school grounds. They soon encounter a farmer named Trueblood who has been ostracized by the larger community for an act which might make some readers recoil. Mr. Norton is mesmerized by his story but the tale leaves him physically exhausted and he asks for whiskey to revive his spirits. The duo continue to drive on eventually stopping at the Golden Day, a watering hole patronized by black students and others nearby. However the bartender refuses to let the whiskey leave the premises and Mr. Norton is brought inside to be revived. Once inside, he comes to and witnesses complete mayhem before once again becoming physically depleted. He is taken upstairs where he rests on a bed while a character names Supercargo tends to his condition. Mr. Norton soon comes around and engages Supercargo in a discussion. Towards the end, Supercargo turns slightly hostile and the pair leave hastily with Mr. Norton not exactly in the best condition. Upon arriving back at the school, the invisible man is forced to tell Dr. Herbert Bledsoe that Mr. Norton had an incident. Bledsoe is furious and although Norton is forgiving, Bledsoe tells him that he will give him a chance by sending him to New York to earn money for the following year’s school fees but that he is to leave school grounds in two days.
Ashe departs for New York, the invisible man finds himself on the bus with Supercargo and another passenger named Crenshaw. They engage in discussion and we learn that Supercargo is being transferred to Washington D.C. Crenshaw also gets off in Washington. At first Supercargo seems to be just a rambling character but he gives the following advice which later proves to be accurate:
Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed. Play the game, but don’t believe in it — that much you owe yourself. Even if it lands you in a strait jacket or a padded cell. Play the game, but play it your own way — part of the time at least. Play the game, but raise the ante, my boy. Learn how it operates, learn how you operate — I wish I had time to tell you only a fragment. We’re an ass-backward people, though. You might even beat the game. It’s really a very crude affair. Really Pre-Renaissance — and that game has been analyzed, put down in books. But down here they’ve forgotten to take care of the books and that’s your opportunity. You’re hidden right out in the open — that is, you would be if you only realized it. They wouldn’t see you because they don’t expect you to know anything, since they believe they’ve taken care of that.
The invisible man arrives in New York with seven letters given to him by Dr. Bledsoe under the guise of finding a job. Surprisingly, none of the people whom the letters are addressed to respond. So taking matters into his own hands, he decideds to see the last recipient, Mr. Ellison for himself. However, Ellison’s son meets with him and in the course of their conversation, he drops a bomb that shatters the invisible man’s whole existence and sets him on the path that takes him to the very place we find him at the beginning of the book.
The invisible man be a country boy but he soon learns the ways of the north and through a shrewd act, lands a job at Liberty Paint in Long Island. After a series of mishaps at Plant No. 1, he is sent down to the lower levels to work under Lucius Brockway. But a misunderstanding and accident lands the invisible man back in New York City where he meets Mary Rambo who is literally at the right place at the right time. On a night out, he comes across an elderly black couple being evicted and gives a speech before the angry crowd surrounding the marshalls. His oratorical skills do not go unnoticed as soon he is approached by a mysterious character named Brother Jack who is part of the Brotherhood. It is at this point in the book that the story picks up in speed significantly as he becomes more involved in the movement.
As I read through the second half of the book, I felt a chill go down my spine because although the book was published in the 1950s, the scenes that take place could have very well been written today. The internal battles in the Brotherhood, brutality by the police, frustrated spouses and people trying to find themselves and sense of purpose form a toxic stew that threatens to consume anyone in its path. The invisible man is by far the most talented of the Brotherhood and rises to become a hero to the people of Harlem, akin to the late Malcolm X (1925-1965). However he is no Muslim nor does he seem to be religious at all. He is simply committed to the Brotherhood and truly believes in what he is doing. But every hero has an antagonist and in the story here, it is in the form of Ras the Exhorter, an extremist who believes in using violence when needed. The battles between the Brotherhood and Ras were some of the chilling parts of the book and after the first encounter, it is clear that Ras will come back later in the story to wreak the havoc he so desperately seeks.
The invisible man continues to make a name for himself in-spite of petty jealousies within the organization. And even when he focuses on the Woman Question while becoming familiar with Brotherood member George’s wife Sybyil, he is at the top of his game intellectually. But little by little the facade begins to crumble and the events surrounding Brother Clifton set the ball in motion for the book’s final act. Clifton’s story is one that has played out across America over the years and some readers will simply feel a sense of digusts. It is almost as if Ellison predicted these events and the rise of Black Lives Matter. While I read the part about Brother Clifton, the hair on my neck stood up as I thought about the actions of law enforcement towards people of color. Further, the response by the Brotherhood and private lecture by Brother Hambro serve as the catalysts that make the main character focus in on the concept of what it truly means to be invisible.
Towards the end of the book as the invisible man is attempting to part ways with Sybil for the night, a series of events occur in Harlem that bring everyting building up in the book to the surface and what transpires next is nothing short of shocking. But it is critical to understanding the plight of the invisible man. By the time the book finished, I felt as if I had just stepped off an aircraft on a long journey full of bumps and surprises. The story is simply breathtaking and a critical look at American society. And I find it be a testament to Ellison’s genius that his words here can still be applied to modern day America. Great book.