Book Review: Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man

Invisible ManInvisible Man by Ralph Ellison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely a well-deserved classic, Ellison’s novel still rings true more than 50 years on. Essentially, it follows a nameless narrator as he comes up to New York from the deep south, taking the reader on a trip from drunken underground fight clubs to communist rallies to mazes of pipes and machinery deep under a paint factory. But throughout, Ellison takes sharp jabs at high society snobs, patronizing rich men and nihilistic community leaders; his book has a dark, almost sardonic sense of humour at times but usually a justified sense of outrage.

Several scenes stuck out for me: rallies with the nameless (but obvious Communist-leaning) organization; a union meeting where everyone is both suspicious of him and glad he’s there, but refuse to let him actually speak; the race riot serving as the book’s climax; the early battle royale, where he’s blindfolded and forced to fight for a group of drunken civic leaders.

It’s hard to resist comparing Ellison’s novel to works by writers like James Baldwin – who I don’t believe Ellison was especially a fan of – because they were contemporaries of a sort. And Invisible Man has something of a conservative bent when compared to Baldwin; Ellison’s suspicious of Black Nationalist leaders like Ras the Destroyer, who he paints as a spear-throwing (literally!) troublemaker who’s trying to fan up violence; makes me wonder what he thought of Malcolm X. At the same time, his depictions of police violence are stunningly similar to what’s happened in recent years in places like Baltimore or Ferguson; the more things change, etc, etc.

In sum, a powerful novel which occasionally I found myself thinking of in terms of 2017 and as a product of the pre-Civil Rights 1950s. It’s compelling and I hardly put it down over the course of a month. Recommended.

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