Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison

The fact that my high school English teacher also assigned Invisible Man back-to-back along with Native Son one summer in the 1980s means one of two things. Either Mrs. Bresnick is a genius, on par alone with the entire Modern Library. Or we as a society are not now (nor have we ever been) 'Post Race,' and—simplistically—when you think of one book, you think of the other.

If we can get past the skin color of the authors (can we?), there is zero comparison to Native Son here (and, yes, I acknowledge that the authors were friends and that both books are supposed to be exposés—each in their own way—of Communism). Invisible Man would be better assigned along with Iris Murdoch's Under the Net. Both employ nameless protagonists and a pervasive sense of unreality. This is fun & makes the reading ridiculous at times, as you come to realize that, truly, ANYTHING can happen next.

In fact, Ralph Ellison uses the words "dream," "nightmare," & variants SO much in this novel that I come to believe the narrator is either asleep, dead, or hallucinating. There is constant telegraphing of this message throughout. And Invisible Man himself could just as easily be the dreamer as the dreamed! Or how about this for a theory? In the pages of this book, at differing points in the narrative, the protagonist is caught in an explosion, shot in the head, & takes a deep fall. In that he suffers no fewer than three traumatic brain injuries, the entirety of the story could be a hallucination, the final thoughts of a dying man, or what goes on in the inner world of a person in a coma.

Other evidence? The narration is both looping & loopy. As I was finishing the book it became quite apparent that the beginning IS the end, so I started reading the Prologue (again) right after I had finished reading the Epilogue. Indeed the final sentence of the last chapter is: "The end was in the beginning." Light in general plays a provocative role thematically, and it was often hard for me as a reader to tell the difference between night & day in the setting. There's a perception of the blending of characters here too. And, of course, 'Invisible Man' isn't just the name of the book, it's also the identity of the main character...who is also nameless...who also has two names. Sounding like a dream to you yet? (More importantly: Sounding NOTHING like Native Son to you yet? Good. It isn't.)

In high school I never did get past 'Chapter one.' But this time around I LOVED this book! It's completely F-ed up: at times seeming poignantly real, at others laugh-out-loud inane, and underlying it all is something that feels like a dream state. Add those perhaps paradoxical descriptors together, and you get...well...I don't feel that Classic Bitch would be going too far out on a limb to use the genre descriptor 'Magical Realism' to describe Invisible Man.