Book Review – The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

TITLE: The Invisible Man
AUTHOR: Ralph Ellison
FORMAT: Paperback
WRITTEN: 1952
PUBLISHED: 1981

The Invisible Man is about the almost surreal struggle of a young black man in the early 1950s trying to distinguish himself in a predominantly white world.  He strives first for education, but an incident ejects him unfairly from college life and into the streets of New York where he eventually finds himself a spokesman in Harlem for a political movement known as the Brotherhood.

Usually, once I get past the first few pages of a book, I see it through to the end, but I almost gave up on this about a third of the way through.  It seemed to belong to that class of “classics” where the protagonist suffers a mix of bad treatment complicated by their own bad decisions, but never acknowledges their own role in their misfortunes.  But the narrative leveled out, and I made it through the 581 pages.  I can’t say I enjoyed the book, so much as I can appreciate it.

I imagine this is one of those novels that will resonate deeply with some people, but be a little too dense and frustrating for others.  Its message was far more complex than my early prediction, and while I occasionally found myself frustrated with the narrative for not being clearer, the protagonist did not simply drift through events for the novel’s entirety.

While reading, the book felt disjointed.  The symbolism was strong in places but the writing murky, too many motives and actions left unexplained.  Reflecting on it, there was a deliberate progression, and I strongly suggest you skip neither the prologue nor epilogue if you hope for any semblance of closure.  Except, the novel ends not so much with closure but with an awakening, or sense of being on the cusp of awakening, which may make a lot more sense in historical context than outside of it.  It’s set in a time gearing up for the height of McCarthyism and the civil rights movement.

I found myself frustrated while reading that the Brotherhood’s politics were not made clearer, but suspect the general reading public of the time would have accepted them to be a communist movement.

Overall, it gets a solid 3 out of 5.  It was a popular book when first released, and it’s easy to see how it could strike a chord.  But I prefer a higher level of polish and closure when making a nearly 600 page investment of my time.

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