Saturday, January 21, 2012

Book 25- Invisible Man (38th Book)

Wow! I was not expecting that! I didn't know much about this book but I knew it was a book about the African American experience. I was thinking it would be an interesting story but something that didn't really apply to my life beyond an interesting history lesson. Boy, was I wrong. The book Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a poetical work of existential questioning. I found myself listening raptly to the story and struggling with my identity right along with the nameless narrator. That is the sign of a good book!
This book, first off, has a great opening and closing line. It starts with "I am invisible" and ends with "Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies I speak for you?"

The book follows a nameless narrator through his life as he experiences the various possibilities open to an African American young person shortly after the civil rights movement. He wins a scholarship to an African American school and sells himself out to the vision of it, only to discover, after accidentally showing one of the white donors the underbelly of the poor community, that his beloved leader Bledsoe was a fraud who was selling out his students to further himself in a white world. Expelled from the school he is sent to New York to make his way in the North where a Black man is supposedly more free. As he navigates a factory job, Harlem and the communist group called, "The Brotherhood". He realized, as he states in the opening line, that he is invisible, simply a nameless cog in the great American wheel worthy of nothing but to be spit out and tossed away by his own Black brethern and White people alike. It isn't until the Prologue that the story finally reconciles itself through a beautifully spun  descriptoin of  human nature and what it is like to be a member of society and yet still an individual.

The book uses African American folk culture to show what it is like to be a minority in America. Some of the African spirtuals clearly show the nature of a repressed culture in their focus on death and irony.

One of the snippets of song that comes to the nameless narrator at a particularly difficult moment was "Well they picked poor Robin clean". Through his difficult experience he finally realized that the song was talking about how it was a reflection of the African American experience of constantly being torn down. One of the most poignant experiences in the novel for me was a trivial incident where the narrator runs into a cart selling yams. The smell tempts the narrator but reminds him of his "backward ways" back home.  He eventually caves and buys a few filled with memories of home but also shame. The silly line he creates to reconcile his two selves has biblical overtones to it, " I yam, what I yam".  One of the lines that shows me clearly what it must be like for a minority living in a dominant culture is this:

"You could cause us the greatest humiliation simply by confronting us what something we liked"

How horrible to hate yourself because you liked something different from everyone else. This is a truth that can span so many minority issues including race, sexual preference, religious differences etc, etc, etc.

The book also focuses on the competing pulls on man in general. The pull to be part of a whole, and also the pull to be an individual set apart from everyone else. There was one quote in particular that made me realize that minorities frequently only have identity as a member of a group. I suppose as a member of the "majority" the thought had never crossed my mind:

"Our task is making ourselves individuals. the conscience of race is a gift of its individuals who see, evaluate, record"

"I saw not a crowd , but the set faces of individual men and women." It was finally after the funeral of one of his collegues in the "Brotherhood" that the narrator could finally see his brothers and sisters in Harlem as individuals and not as a collective that behaved in  a certain way.

The book is series of brilliant existential questions about "Who am I? what am I? how did I come to be? What do I make of the life around me" ~ Ellison quoted in The Novel 100. I love most existential thoughts and have always been okay with the fact that I don't have the answers to all of them. The anxiety we all face in facing the unknown nature of these questions thrills me rather than causing me anxiety. The narrator ends the novel recognizing that though he is invisible he still has a responsibility to come out of hibernation and play a role in existing amongst others. Here are some great quotes in that vein:

"You ache with the need to convince yoruslef that you do exist in the real world, that you're part of the all the sound and anguish"

"step outside teh narrow borders of what men call reality and you step into chaos...or imagination"

"live is to be lived, not controlled"

"None of us seems to know who he is or where he is going"

"I have been called one thing and then another while no one really wished to hear what I called myself"

"Once you get used to it, reality is as irresistable as a club"

"I was my experiences and my experiences were me"

Lastly, the book also hints at sin (both communal and personal), but also talks about the true meaning of life being that of Love. I loved that about the book.

"The fact is that you carry part of your sickness within you, at least I do as an invisible man"

"I have been hurt to the point of abysmal pain, hurt to the point of invisibility. And I defend because in spite of it all I find that I love."

This project has been good for me to expand my horizons and read books that I never would have picked up in my life. Some lead for pleasant suprises and some lead to a new perspective. The next book on the list is Finnegans Wake by James Joyce. I am excited to read it since I enjoyed Ulysses

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