Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Review: Invisible Man

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Some books you wonder why it took you so long to get around to. How come no ever told me how good this book was? How come it never came up in discussion about existential literature? Ellison's narrator is the underground man, pushed aside by society. It reads in many ways, especially in the beginning like Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. He lives a life of absurdity, guided by happenstance, uncontrolled contingencies. He is not incapable of action, but chooses in bad faith to be a yes-man, to go where he is led. And the whole time he is trying to sort out who he is, never really learning that it up to him to determine that.

Ellison deals with race in a way that makes me think of Frantz Fanon or Ngugi. Race is an excuse for marginalization. He's not casting blame except for those who deserve it. Race is circumstance, part of identity as any other circumstance of birth, but it is not completely definitive. When Ellison deals with it this way race is not by itself the major issue of the book.

The narrator, though, is frustratingly passive. We're given glimpse of his abilities, but he is guided by others and by contingency. Even when he has his existential epiphany in the end, finally sorting out that it is up to him to determine his identity, that only through action does he make himself, it is weak, too late, and again set off by something incidental and absurd.

The novel is a thoroughly psychological novel, with first person narration that allows us to see the tumbling around of his thoughts. With it's existential and political themes, I can't believe no one has ever recommended this book to me. I would have thanked them for it.


  1. Damon, all you had to do was ask. I first read the book twenty years ago and it's still among the very best I've read and one of my favorites. (If you're looking to read more Ellison, though, I strongly recommend avoiding "Juneteenth" in favor of "Flying Home and Other Stories.")

  2. This book was just so "up my alley" that I can't believe I hadn't even stumbled on it before. Thanks for the recommedation on "Juneteenth."

  3. Or non-recommendation, as it were. The book had its moments, but overall I mostly found it unreadable.