Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This novel kicks off with a surreal bang, with our "invisible" narrator going around and busting heads because his invisibility grants him freedom from being held accountable. He wants to explain how he became this way, and the majority of the rest of the novel is his story.
Starting out as a young and exceptionally talented speechmaker at a southern university, the narrator relates to us the trouble he gets into as a young black man dealing with racial issues, catch-22s, and tradition. After a particularly disastrous incident involving one of the rich white university trustees, our narrator is first admonished for fouling up the reputation of the university and then sent out to New York to work.
Having always looked up to Dr. Bledsoe, the university administrator (and also one of the few black men that the narrator has seen in a position of power), our narrator is crushed to find out that he was actually expelled and exiled from the school. Facing his anguish and anger, he decides to strike out into New York by enlisting in a paint-making factory.
After another incident, this time involving an insecure mentor figure at the factory and pressurized machines, our narrator ends up at a hospital. His mind and identity gets erased due to an experimental treatment by white scientists.
Let loose upon the streets, he is taken in by a wonderfully kind older black woman named Mary. She tends to him and won't hear anything about taking rent money until he can find a job.
Well, he does find one, eventually. After making a potent speech at the site of a rather public eviction, a man approaches him and asks our narrator to join up with a Brotherhood, which fights for the unity of all people, regardless of race. The rest of the novel tells about the narrator's struggle up the ladder, his success, ideas and thoughts, cautions, betrayals, and much more. Dark humor, provoking thoughts and actions, and excellent plots abound.
So, only at the very end does he explain what it took to make him realize he could be invisible, and what that means for him and society.
This sketch is of the character Ras the Destroyer, an powerful speaker who embraces his African heritage and spurns oppression. At the end of the novel, he changes his name from Ras the Exhorter to Ras the Destroyer because he's done preaching his words and starts tearing down society as he sees fit. Throughout the book, Ras has opposed the Brotherhood that our narrator has championed. He staunchly believes that since the Brotherhood was started by white people, it was only a sham and affront to black people everywhere. In his eyes, the only way to help his race was to fight those that always brought the boot down upon them.
Amid an all out race-riot, Ras leads an army while mounted upon a great black steed, brandishing a shield, spear, spurs, and pistol. Very visual, isn't it?
Other issues that are explored:
- Women's sexuality as a tool/danger
- Manipulation and deceit under the guise of "good"
- Using emotions and ideas to unite people
- The creative and destructive power of organizations
- Destiny in relation to class/race
- How different societies see thing in variation
- Trust and Betrayal
- Action as opposed to religion
On a side note, the majority of the book takes place in New York city, which is where I read the last third of the book! I just happened to be on vacation and visiting friends up there, and I got to walk on some of the same streets the narrator walked on! Haha!