“I am an invisible man.”
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.
“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie extoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”
If you know the premise of this novel—that the protagonist is an African American man in 1950s Harlem, then you get the sense, right away, where this novel is going.
It’s a fabulous opener, and once you read further into the novel, as I am now getting, you’ll see even more clearly how strong an opener that is. The infamous battle royal seen is one of the most powerful chapters I’ve read.
Also, mostly unrelated, the “bodiless heads” line reminds me a little of Infinite Jest’s awesome opener. So there’s that.
It’s been so long since I’ve read Invisible Man, I almost feel like I’m reading it for the first time. Outstanding novel.