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Invisible Man Paperback – March 14, 1995
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We rely, in this world, on the visual aspects of humanity as a means of learning who we are. This, Ralph Ellison argues convincingly, is a dangerous habit. A classic from the moment it first appeared in 1952, Invisible Man chronicles the travels of its narrator, a young, nameless black man, as he moves through the hellish levels of American intolerance and cultural blindness. Searching for a context in which to know himself, he exists in a very peculiar state. "I am an invisible man," he says in his prologue. "When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination--indeed, everything and anything except me." But this is hard-won self-knowledge, earned over the course of many years.
As the book gets started, the narrator is expelled from his Southern Negro college for inadvertently showing a white trustee the reality of black life in the south, including an incestuous farmer and a rural whorehouse. The college director chastises him: "Why, the dumbest black bastard in the cotton patch knows that the only way to please a white man is to tell him a lie! What kind of an education are you getting around here?" Mystified, the narrator moves north to New York City, where the truth, at least as he perceives it, is dealt another blow when he learns that his former headmaster's recommendation letters are, in fact, letters of condemnation.
What ensues is a search for what truth actually is, which proves to be supremely elusive. The narrator becomes a spokesman for a mixed-race band of social activists called "The Brotherhood" and believes he is fighting for equality. Once again, he realizes he's been duped into believing what he thought was the truth, when in fact it is only another variation. Of the Brothers, he eventually discerns: "They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves.... Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men."
Invisible Man is certainly a book about race in America, and sadly enough, few of the problems it chronicles have disappeared even now. But Ellison's first novel transcends such a narrow definition. It's also a book about the human race stumbling down the path to identity, challenged and successful to varying degrees. None of us can ever be sure of the truth beyond ourselves, and possibly not even there. The world is a tricky place, and no one knows this better than the invisible man, who leaves us with these chilling, provocative words: "And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?" --Melanie Rehak
From Publishers Weekly
These three volumes have been redesigned and reissued to commemorate the first anniversary of Ellison's death.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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The novel is made up of his story and how he came to recognize his own non-entity status. And it hits you in the gut right away: the first incident he relates from his life is when he's awarded a scholarship from a prestigious philanthropic organization in the small Southern town in which he grows up. He's invited to a country club dinner to make a speech about his scholarship, but once he gets there, he and several other young black men are forced to fight each other and be humiliated chasing for electrified coins. Only after he's been degraded is he allowed to give his speech and receive the scholarship and the briefcase. It's a horrifying sequence, incredibly difficult to read, and the book is just getting started.
This experience, and the ones that the narrator has at a black college and then in New York are rooted in a fundamental denial of his humanity. He's entertainment, or a tool, or an experiment, or just disposable. He struggles and fights and gets up after being knocked down over and over again, but he can't escape the fact of his race and the broad social structures designed to keep him and other black men firmly in the underclass. And while things have gotten better today, it's maybe not as much better as we'd like to think.
This is a hard book to read. Not because of the quality...Ellison's writing is incredible. But it's heavy and dark and the unending awfulness of what the narrator is subjected to is a lot to get your head around. I usually try not to get heavily into politics on this blog, but I read this book right after the 2016 election, and it really made me think about the racism that persists in our society.
Prior to reading Invisible Man, I hadn't heard much about it. No recommendations or opinions from others. So there was no way for me to foresee the impact the story would have on me. No way to envisage how eventful and substantial this book would be. No way to anticipate the perspective given to me, from the author, of this black man in America. No way for me to expect the change made to MY perspective as a Black American. After experiencing this painful truth, there was no way I could have conceived that the very people in my life may be "Invisible," and that I myself am invisible as well.
The protagonist did not expect to experience the harsh realities of his existence. More specifically, to experience a journey that he had not planned for, but had plans for him; to meet with a number of individuals that would alter his perspective on being black in a white country; not expecting to ultimately realize that he never accurately knew himself in the first place. The Invisible Man struggles to live in a world where people choose to see him as THEY want to see him, and not for who he truly is. I felt deeply connected with both the mental plight of the protagonist, and his lonesome walk of life.
Author Ralph Ellison paints the most vivid picture of an incredible story. With it's outstanding descriptiveness, and incredible symbolism, this book is nothing short of a masterpiece. While it may be tough to grasp all of it's messages and comprehend each metaphor in one read, it's a page turning experience that unforgivably takes a hold of your emotions without ever letting go. This book is an essential read for a number of reasons, however, two of them strike me as the most palpable. The first being its accurate portrayal of racism in America. Ellison takes us inside the mind of the protagonist as he experiences and discovers hateful discrimination in many forms. As well as many perspectives on racism though multiple characters in the book. And second, though it goes without saying how well written and beautiful the novel is, I was astounded by the overall genius of Ellison's vision. With how meticulous and well crafted this work of art is, it came as no surprise when I learned that it took Ellison roughly seven years to complete this book. The ideas presented in this book, though written nearly 70 years ago, still resonate deeply in today's society. I consider myself fortunate to have graced its pages. Easily a 5 star book, and one of the best books I've ever read.