Published by Ralph Ellison in 1952 to immediate acclaim, Invisible Man is the story of a man in New York City who, after his experiences growing up and living as a model black citizen, now lives in an underground hole and believes he is invisible to American society.
Invisible Man is unique not only in the literature world for its improvisational jazz-inspired style, but also in the political world for adding a new voice to the discussion about blacks in America. Ellison depicts several ideologies in the novel that line up with the ideologies of Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, and communism. To equate the ideologies would be a mistake, because the characters portrayed in the novel are only caricatures of their real-life inspirations (in the same way that Pete in Family Guy is not an accurate representation of a middle-class father). But the novel's rejection of ideology in general is a central theme, which explains why Invisible Man wasn't exactly a hit among influential black thinkers from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to this day.
Ellison drew heavy fire for being, in their view, politically disengaged and removed from the collective plight of black America. Invisible Man, in its efforts to transcend the confines of racial labeling, was criticized by those who wanted to keep those labels in place and use them as the impetus for political action.
But then there are lots of artsy literature types who would respond along the lines of, "Yoohoo! This is a novel!" Putting politics aside, Invisible Man is significant for its incredibly daring style. (It's equivalent to the Gwen Stefani of the literary world.) Ellison stated in his National Book Award acceptance speech that he viewed Invisible Man as exceptional for its experimental attitude. A lifelong lover of jazz, Ellison sought to create its literary equivalent. Invisible Man follows the stylistic foundations of jazz by using discordant rhythms, drawing on other literary works, and synthesizing prior traditions into a new art form. But more on that later, under Style.
"He's got an amazing lay-up, but he can't spell!"
"Why are drama geeks so weird?"
"She's a cheerleader – isn't she supposed to be hot?"
Within the first five minutes of meeting someone, we've got them sized up, categorized, and filed away under a billion different headings: girl next door, rebel, tough guy, femme fatale, flamboyant, rich, wallflower, punk, exotic, hippie, fashionista, and so on. You're labeled by what school you go to, your athletic prowess, your looks, where you shop, your zip code, what car you drive, what cell phone you use, where you went for vacation last summer – and, oh yes, your race.
The narrator of Invisible Man gets labeled more frequently than a pack of bad-for-your-health cigarettes. Throughout the novel, he's mistaken for a reverend, a pimp, a gambler, a fink, a unionist, a "Southern Negro," a "New York Negro," a rapist, a lover, a doctor, and a good singer. So what happens when we get slapped with that inevitable label (or two or three or four)? We can embrace or reject them, but either way, they're going to affect us, and, to some degree, determine our actions. Ever notice how counter-culture teens conform to a rebellious standard so they can avoid... being conformists? Right.
What makes Invisible Man so compelling is that its narrator recognizes this, reflects on it in great depth, and chooses to deal with and live in the world anyway. Not exactly an easy feat. How does he pull it off, you ask? Good question. Get on that, and tell us what you think.