Review of Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

First read: 11/99
Reviewed on: 11/23/99
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

The following may seem off the subject, but it's not.  I've read a lot of books by women, starting in elementary school with Betty Brock and the goddess Beverly Cleary, and going through Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Agatha Christie, Yoko Ono, Anais Nin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand, Laurie Anderson, Emma Goldman (by or about her, I don't remember), etc.  There were many more; I never used to pay attention to the author when I read books.  The point is that all of these female authors wrote very differently.  It would be ridiculous to group them all together and say, "Hey, look!  I was reading 'Women's Literature' getting the 'female perspective' "  because these women's books didn't have much in common.  Ayn Rand (who, by the way, was left off of several lists of "women authors" that I've seen) has a whole different set of beliefs and obsessions than the goddess Beverly Cleary, for example.

(When I went to college, several of my colleagues took women's studies courses, and rhetoric courses that were really women's studies courses, and were told that high schools never assign books with woman authors and that young people, particularly males, are never exposed to these authors.  At least from my experience, this was untrue.)

Why do I bring this up?  To contrast my experiences of "Women Authors" with my experience of "Black Authors."  When we read The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks in Junior High, this was clearly a book about the Black Experience, as was A Choice of Weapons, Black Boy, and Native Son.  Every American novel by a black author that I've read (and known the author was black - I don't usually check) has had to do with what it is like to be black.  I actually really like all of the books mentioned, so I haven't minded that much.  But when Laurel recommended Invisible Man to me, I must confess that I thought "Great.  Here we go again."

This book was different than the others.  Not necessarily in subject matter, but in writing quality.  I previously enjoyed Native Son because the plot had twists and turns like you were riding a roller coaster.   Invisible Man had twists and turns, but more like g-force nightmare 180 degree hairpins late at night on a mountain road with a 500 foot drop while you are tipsy from alcohol and altitude, with a crazed nymphomaniac in the passenger seat insisting on giving you a blowjob.

And the writing!    Ralph Ellison can make words open up the page like Alice's looking glass, and draw you into scenes like you are there, and all the weird awful crap that happens is affecting you right in the room.  Early in the book there is a scene where the protagonist is invited to give a speech to a Chamber of Commerce meeting.  It is one of the best written scenes I've ever experienced in any novel.  Sex!  Violence!  Betrayal!  More violence!  More Betrayal!  And THEN he has to give the speech to these men who have shown themselves to be total savages, and act like one of my UMTYMP honors students giving a valedictory speech at graduation. 

In summary, Ralph Ellison is covering the same thematic ground that Parks and Wright have.  But he is twice the writer that they are, which made this novel quite something to read.  I checked to find out if he wrote any other novels, knowing I would order them all.  Sadly, he did not.

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