Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

Cover of Invisible Man

Rank: A+
No. Times Read: 1
Last Read: Spring, 1999

Author Name: Ralph Ellison

Review: Invisible Man (note the absence of the definite article [if you can note an absence]) is, in my opinion, the best piece of writing ever produced by an American.

Invisible Man is the story of an unnamed narrator who is black and living in the South at the present time (1950s). The story begins with a grotesque cage match between young black high school students trying to get a scholarship to a negro college, and proceeds, from there, to get even more bizarre. And yet, no matter how other-worldly the action seems, one’s left wondering just how much truth there is to the plot (or, rather, was [hopefully]). By the end, I felt like a cat that’d just gotten out of a washing machine (not a dryer—this is very important).

Aside from the plot and the social issues, the reason Invisible Man is so extraordinary is its author, Ellison. If I’ve written it once, I’ve written it…well once. I don’t think I’ve written it before. But I’m writing it now. If one is going to write something, there has to be a reason one is writing it, as opposed to filming it, drawing it, performing it on stage, etc. In the world of television and movies, reading a book requires a commitment on the part of the reader that is not required by, say, a DVD: time. Movies are short, and with a DVD player, can be paused and returned to at any time. I don’t care how fast a reader you are, reading a book as long as Invisible Man is going to take more time than watching a movie. If the reader is going to put forth the effort to read a book, they should get something in return—something that only a book can give them: style. The quality of the writing itself. This is the only thing that can’t be conveyed by film. If one pens a book without style, then one has penned a book that isn’t fit to be read. Case in point: the Harry Potter books. I haven’t read a one, and never will. Why? Because the movies require less of my time, and I get essentially the same return. What do I mean by “essentially”? Any Potter fan can tell you: There’s “more” in the books than there is in the movies. But what is that “more”? Style? Quality of composition? No, of course not. The “more” is plot. Whenever a new Harry Potter movie is released I always hear someone say, “The movie was okay, but didn’t do the movie justice, because…”, and what follows will be, “In the book character x spoke to y right before they did z, but you don’t see that conversation!” I’m not going to waste my time reading a 700 page book just to get an extra conversation. If I was interested enough, I might look at a website where all the differences between a movie and a book are listed explicitly, but only if it was short and to the point.

That’s the difference between a writer and an author: A writer writes, and puts effort and time into their composition—makes the reading experience itself a worthwhile one. An author merely publishes books with their name on it. Ralph Ellison is a writer, dammit, and I haven’t come across a finer piece of American writing in any form from any time period, and I doubt I ever will.

To clear something up really quickly, the astute reader will note that Invisible Man is below two other works of American fiction on my overall ranking: Heller’s Catch-22 and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Remember that these rankings relate to how well I liked a book, and do not necessarily reflect the quality of the story or the writing. I’m absolutely certain that Invisible Man is a better book than Catch-22. However, with possibly one exception, I’ve never enjoyed reading as much as when I was reading Catch-22Yeatsian connection with The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald, the way I didn’t with Invisible Man. A large part of that has to do with me, and thus, shouldn’t reflect negatively or positively on either book. The only place where my preferences should be reflected is in the overall ranking, and so they are.

[Update: Upon reflection, I still think The Great Gatsby is a better book qua book than Invisible Man. Though Invisible Man has a stylistic edge, The Great Gatsby is a better story, from start to finish. It really can’t be topped. -DJP 4/9/2011]

Finally, I want to note that Invisible Man is on the list at number 19. I could see it easily being number 3, but, as everyone knows, a list reflects the listmakers, more than anything else (e.g. is it just chance that the first two African-American authors are listed one right after another? And is it a coincidence that these two are situated right in between the “all time classics”, and the “pretty darn good books”, a.k.a., the rest? It really is a sharp division: Compare everything before 19, to everything after 20 [say, 20 to 50]). In either case, it’s good to see that the book was recognized, and that even if it didn’t make the top 5, it made the top 20.

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