My goal for February was to read a couple books for Black History Month. Not surprisingly, I managed one: Ralph Ellison's classic, Invisible Man. The novel is substantial, both in its scope and narrative approach. It took me ages to read--and I abandoned it at one point and picked up a different book, read magazines, anything really to escape the relentless story.
The title, metaphorical, not literal, refers to the narrator's lack of identity as a black man. He can walk down a street and no one sees him. He can stand on the street and people will pass on by as if he wasn't even there. Invisibility -- blessing and a curse -- defines his life. And what a troubled life, kicked out of school (not his fault), and settling in New York City, things go from bad to worse for the man. The novel, which was first published in 1952, and it was interesting to read it now, over fifty years later. Ellison's writing style, while imbued with the tone and tenacity of the time, doesn't feel dated. In fact, the book reminded me a lot of The Best of Everything, not in its subject matter, characterization or plot, but more because of its uncanny ability to bring the story to life and embed in a very particular time and place.
My 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die tome suggests the novel has existential themes, and I'd agree, the narrator can't help but contemplate his existence; it's the purest form of a Manichean dialogue, race goes beyond allegory, it's essential and he's essentially being defined against it by just about everyone he comes into contact with him. There were moments when the cruelty of the world became almost too much for me to bear -- I turned away like I did when I watched Inglorious Basterds, when the violence, meant to be too much, shocked me into tears.
I was first supposed to read Ellison's masterpiece in university. At the time, I was too wrapped up in Faulkner, a writerly obsession I carried with me from high school. Since then, I've carried my same copy around with me from apartment to apartment, keeping it on that metaphorical 'to be read' someday shelf with many other books from school. Slowly but surely, I'm working my way through a lot of them. Because I read so much modern Can Lit, and let's face it, books that are published by the houses where I worked over the last five years, I've been rebelling a little. When I go to the shelf I'm inspired to pick up big, heavy books like Invisible Man and give my brain a work out. I imagine writing a paper filled with literary theory, can smell the air in the library as I do research, and think that Invisible Man does exactly what a classic piece of literature should do, it lasts.
READING CHALLENGES: 1001 Books, natch.
WHAT'S UP NEXT: I can't blog about the book I read this week, Emma Donoghue's Room (#13), because it's not out until Fall 2010. But I will say this, it's exceptional -- a literary page turner of the likes I've never read before, and it's become one of my favourite new books of the year. I can't wait to talk to people about it once it's actually published. So I'm going to try to finish the totally absurd The Third Policeman (also a 1001 Book), and a couple other Irish writers because it's March and my theme is, well, Irish writing this month.