ABCs of 1001 Books: Invisible Man

A – I anticipated that Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison would be a harrowing read, and it was, but not in the ways I expected. I expected the narrator to face the constant, demeaning racism that I’ve read about in other books written and/or set in America in the mid-1900s, but many of the situations in the book are extreme and nightmarish, full of more insanity and horror than fear and sorrow. It was difficult to keep reading with the anticipation that the narrator would keep encountering the worst case scenario and the worst of humanity.

B – I am grateful that I didn’t read this novel before, in high school or college. It would have disturbed me even more deeply then because, like the young adult narrator, I was figuring out my fundamental worldview. Now my strong beliefs help me emotionally and intellectually process challenging books like this.

C – The main character is the unnamed, self-proclaimed invisible man, the first-person narrator.

D – The plot is everything that happened to him and that he did that led him to develop his worldview centered on the concept of his invisibility. He is kicked out of college for a nightmarish mistake, goes to New York because of what he soon realizes is the deception of a former mentor, makes more mistakes at a factory job, stumbles into a nightmarish conflict at the factory, nearly dies and undergoes a nightmarish healing at a hospital, has a little respite at a kind woman’s boarding house, joins a political organization he calls the Brotherhood that he thinks is the answer to everything, figures out they’re not, and literally goes to live underground after experiencing a nightmarish night of race riots during which he threw a spear through a rival’s face.

E – The plot structure is episodic in ways I associate with older novels such as Gulliver’s Travels or Zorba the Greek. The main character goes from place to place, encountering people and problems, but with no clear objective other than survival. I don’t mind this structure in nonfiction because it can be life-like, but in fiction I often find it tedious.

F – Reading this reminded me of a random French satire I read in a high school theater course. Candide by Voltaire follows the characters as they go on a journey for a purpose I don’t remember and meet the worst of mankind who treat them in the worst possible ways. Both Voltaire’s satire and Ellison’s novel left me thinking the writer wrote this not to tell a story so much as to express utter contempt and disgust for society, government, religion, history, economics, humanity, and basically all of creation.

G – A glass eye makes an appearance and startles the narrator. Look forward to that on your first read.

H – I started thinking that Ellison assumes a knowledge of history in the way he vaguely references famous people, events, and fashion trends, but then I realized that he set the novel in his contemporary period. So he likely didn’t feel the need to explain “the Founder” of the college or the politics of “the Brotherhood” any more than someone writing in the 2010s would feel the need to explain McDonald’s or a cellphone.

I – A member of the Brotherhood says, “And sometimes the difference between individual and organized indignation is the difference between criminal and political action” (293). An intriguing thought.

J – I felt the urge to censor my honest judgment of this novel when I first started writing this post because I know that I don’t “get it” and that it doesn’t matter that I don’t “get it.” Ellison bravely expressed the views of an African American, working-class man in a time when that type of view was being actively, violently oppressed. The cultural relevance of this novel and this author can’t be denied. But with full recognition that my judgment is not relevant, I’m going to be honest about it because it’s all I have.

K – I lost track of how many people were killed in the novel not because there were all that many but because some scenes became very chaotic and I didn’t want to re-read them closely to clear up my confusion about the people’s fates.

L – Ellison has an admirable dexterity with language, incorporating realistic dialogue, academic speeches, impromptu speeches, and narrative stream-of-consciousness.

M – The narrator’s misogyny is disgusting. He has affairs with two different married women and then bemoans the trouble they cause, as if he had no part in it. Gross.

20180731_200905N – To the right is a picture of my casual post-it note method of note-taking. I put two or three post-its on the cover page. I write a page number and sometimes a paragraph and then a few words to show what content/idea can be found there.

O – You should watch Get Out. It is simultaneously a wry social commentary on black-white relations in America, a laugh-out-loud comedy, and a genuinely suspenseful horror movie. I thought of some of the absurdly, infuriatingly ignorant things white characters say in that movie while reading a dinner party scene in Invisible Man.

P – The petty arguments between the narrator and other members of the Brotherhood remind me of office politics as much as government politics. Get any group of people together and they’ll criticize one another and sabotage one another. Even if they can agree on a common goal, there will always be disputes on how to get there, especially as it relates to whose ideas to follow.

Q – A quote from the last sentence of Drew Milne’s entry on Invisible Man in 1001 Books: “Fierce, defiant, and utterly funny, Ellison’s tone mixes various idioms and registers to produce an impassioned inquiry into the politics of being” (478). I agree with every part of that assessment except “utterly funny.” It’s very-conditionally funny, with humor I might describe as dark, philosophical, or sporadic.

R – My favorite new website, NoveList Plus, provides read-alikes for titles and authors. The read-alike authors for Ellison are William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Jamaica Kincaid, Alice Walker, Alex Haley, Lorraine Hansberry, Salman Rushdie, and Robert Penn Warren. I feel fortunate to have read works from all but three of them, Haley, Rushdie, and Warren.

S – The narrator doesn’t reveal much about his personal interests or skills, but his ability to make inspiring speeches plays a part in the plot more than once.

T – One of Ellison’s commentaries on his contemporary culture comes in poetic descriptions of people the narrator calls “men of transition.”

U – The other men in the Brotherhood continuously argue about scientific versus unscientific approaches to their work, especially when referring to how they relate to “the mob” of people they’re trying to win support from. These discussions are too vague to be interesting. But maybe that’s the point, that organizations like this are arguing about nothing?

V – It’s immeasurably sad that a black character’s violent death at the hands of police officer could have happened yesterday, seventy years after the novel’s initial publication. I wish I knew what part I could play in making sure that violence is a thing of the past when it reaches its one hundredth anniversary. 20180731_200810

W – The edition of the novel I read published by Vintage International in 1995 has a pleasant shape, jacket cover texture, and weight that I associate with reprints of novels for bookclubs.

X – There are no xylophones in this novel.

Y – I couldn’t think of a word, so I typed “y” into the search bar at and found a wealth of random information, including some amusing lines in the “historical examples” section. One surprisingly pertinent example: “‘I can’t find anything in Y to finish this up with,’ he said at last.” from Tip Lewis and His Lamp by Pansy.

Z – Zelie is the main character in Tomi Adeyemi’s excellent teen fantasy novel, Children of Blood and Bone. My hold on the novel happened to come through the week I started this post. Adeyemi writes in her afterword that police violence against African American children was an inspiration for her story.

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