Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

November 4, New York: What I remembered most vividly about Invisible Man was the setting of the Prologue: in that forgotten subbasement, surrounded by the blindingly bright white lights. And the declaration of invisibility, I remember that clearly as well. But most of the rest of the book was a re-discovery and a thoroughly enjoyable one.

I was particularly taken with how funny the book was. Sure, it’s a bitter funny, but I couldn’t help but laugh at the entirety of the scene in the paint factory. Mixing the black in to make a perfect white. The lone black man in the basement who is the only one who knows who to make the perfect white paint. And of course the twinned lines: “‘If it’s optic white it’s the right white.’ If you’re white you’re right.”

You cannot overstate the importance of this book. And particularly, in reading it, to think about the millions of college kids who found this on their reading lists and saw the world from the invisible perspective. But it’s also such an enviably well-written book. The thematic threads that track throughout are so powerful (the pocket and then the briefcase, filling up with hated artifacts like the broken chain gang link and the Sambo paper doll). And the striking visual scenes Ellison conjures are indelible. The final fight with Ras, for example. Or the mayhem in the Golden Day. Ellison writes in the Introduction that he wrote the Battle Royale scene (augh, what an incredible and bile-inducing scene) and had it published as its own story, but was then worried that he couldn’t recapture that magic. He needn’t have worried.

There have been and still are plenty of things wrong with this country (as learned in the recent re-reading of Howard Zinn’s book), but I do thoroughly appreciate that our culture can produce, then appreciate, then teach from a book like this. That, in the end, a beautifully rendered human experience can capture the imagination away from prejudice.

Buy Invisible Man, which you read once long ago, and re-read it. Trust me, you’ll love it even more.

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