Invisible Man is hands-down one of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read.
I read the novel in college, and I don’t know whether it was age or maturity, but Invisible Man slapped me across the face this time around. I won’t forget it.
It starts with an unnamed protagonist—the “invisible man” modeled after the unnamed protagonist in Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground—who grows up in Harlem in the middle of a racist society. To earn a scholarship to college, he has to participate in a “battle royal” while blindfolded with other young black men.
Older white men mock them from the crowd and then force them to scavenge for coins on an electrified rug. It’s one of the most degrading scenes in literature…but, because of that, it’s one of the most powerful openings in literature as well.
The story continues with the narrator getting kicked out of college by the school’s African-American president who caters to the white trustees. He then finds a job in a New York factory before finally settling in as a speaker for “The Brotherhood”—basically a group of white communist men who are looking for support in Harlem.
In his interview with the Paris Review, Ralph Ellison insisted that Invisible Man wasn’t a protest novel.
He explained it this way:
I’m not sure that a novel has ever opened with the intensity of Invisible Man.
Not long after the opening lines of the novel, Ellison takes us into one of the most emotionally disturbing scenes in literature. Even if you never read Invisible Man, the “Battle Royal” scene is worth a read. This particular scene was published separately by Ellison long before Invisible Man came together as a novel.
A group of white men blindfold a bunch of young black men and force them to fight each other in boxing style battle royal match. It’s nuts. When the match is finally over, the white men take the blindfolds off and lead the black men to their “payment.” They’ve scattered a bunch of coins on a rug that has an electric current running through it. You can imagine what happens next.
Finally, after being bloodied and electrified, the black, unnamed narrator is given the opportunity to present a speech to the white crowd, one he had prepared for and had thought was supposed to be the purpose of the gathering. As he quotes a Booker T. Washington speech from the stage, he’s jeered and cursed by the white men. It’s an ugly, yet powerful, scene.
I’m a sucker for opening lines. That’s why I include the opening line in each novel I review, and I’ve posted about some of my favorites before, like the opening lines from The Blind Assassin and The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Lord of the Flies, and I even posted about the Bulwer-Litton fiction contest—a battle to see who can write the worst opening line to a fake novel.
A book’s opening sets its tone. A bad first line is like an offense starting a football game with a false start on the first play. Immediately, they go backwards five yards.
A good first line pulls you in right away. It can even dive right into tension and intrigue. It makes you care and want to read more.
I’m digging Invisible Man for a lot of reasons—the majority of which has to do with Ralph Ellison. Wow. What a writer.
And, in my meaningless opinion, Ellison pulls off one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read.