what i'm reading: invisible man meets the zombies of zone one

I'm in the middle of reading Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, now removed from the Famous Books I Haven't Read Yet list. The novel is an exploration of African-American identity in the days of the Jim Crow South and the shifting terrain of the supposedly enlightened North. Written in the late 1940s and published in 1952, Invisible Man was instantly hailed as a Great American Novel. It won the National Book Award the year after its publication, and is number 19 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels List.

Sadly, the book itself became overshadowed by what came next - or what didn't. After huge initial success, Ellison never published anything important again. He ranks as number one on a much sadder list: the famous and prolonged cases of writer's block. Unlike the other two writers who spring to mind as sharing that sad distinction, Ellison didn't have a large body of previously published work (like Joseph Mitchell) and he didn't have a second writing life in his senior years (like Henry Roth). The novel Juneteenth, attributed to Ellison, was published posthumously, based on thousands of pages of his notes, worked on by Ellison's long-time editor.

None of that really matters in terms of Invisible Man, of course. But I wondered if the novel would hold up over time, or if it would be more of a period piece, a work you have to accept as great and groundbreaking within its own context, but not something a contemporary reader could relate to. I've found this to be the case with many Great Novels of first half of the 20th Century: they simply don't work anymore.

I was pleased this wasn't the case with Invisible Man. It's now a historical novel, to be sure, in a way it was not when it was written. It's a journey into the midsection of American's racist history, the period between its slave roots and its current incarnation of denial and amnesia. And it's a relevant and compelling journey. The Wikipedia summary says:
It addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans early in the twentieth century, including black nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, and the reformist racial policies of Booker T. Washington, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.
This is accurate, but I think these explorations are well integrated with character and plot.

Reading Invisible Man today, it would probably help to have some knowledge of American history, especially of Jim Crow and the mass migration of African-Americans to the industrial North. Ellison is not didactic; much history is implied but not spelled out. But even without that knowledge, a good reader could understand the book, and might be moved to learn more to fill in the gaps.

* * * *

The narrator of Invisible Man remains unnamed throughout the book. He is both an Everyman and, as the title implies, a No Man. Interestingly, the last book I read, Colson Whitehead's Zone One also employs an unnamed narrator; you know him only by his post-plague nickname, "Mark Spitz". He is not, however, the famous American Olympic athlete Mark Spitz, and his real name is never revealed.

In Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, characters are identified by their skin colour for reasons integral to the book's central premise. But in each of Whitehead's subsequent novels, the narrator is casually revealed to be African-American later in the story, when it becomes relevant.

I've always felt that, in doing this, Whitehead was purposely bucking the unwritten rules of American book publishing and marketing. Writers who are white are writers. Writers who are black are Black Writers. White writers can write about anything, but ethnic people only write about ethnic concerns. Unless otherwise indicated, narrators are always white, and if a narrator is not white, please indicate immediately so white readers will not be confused. And so on.

This ghettoization is an old story, and the same white-male-centricity has been reflected in many other arenas. I am old enough to remember the "women's music" section in record stores, and of course we still have "sports" and "women's sports".

Based on my awareness of this and my enjoyment of Whitehead's wry sense of humour, I've always felt that Whitehead's late revelations of his narrator's blackness was a subtle act of resistance.

Slight spoiler alert: if you plan on reading Zone One you might want to skip this.

In Zone One, the narrator's blackness is revealed very late in the book, and nearly gratuitously. More than two-thirds of the way into the novel, you learn that "Mark Spitz" is black. I have to think this has now become an inside joke between Whitehead and his readers. The Mark Spitz narrator is practically stepping out of frame in a postmodern aside, winking at the reader: Oh, did you assume I was white?

So here in the space of weeks I've coincidentally discovered two unnamed African-American narrators. Both are Everyman. Both come to New York City. Both are survivors, whether they like it or not. Both lead the reader on a journey through a very dark and harrowing history, a history that will not die. Although the novels are as different as 1952 and 2011, Ellison's invisible man could be "Mark Spitz"'s grandfather.

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