INVISIBLE MAN, by Ralph Ellison. Random House, New York. 439 pp. $3.50.
In the novel, "Invisible Man," Ralph Ellison portrays the lonely and futile search of a symbolically inscrutable Negro for an understanding of his times. Written in vein of middle class snobbishness--even contempt--toward the Negro people, Ellison's work manipulates his nameless hero for 439 pages through a maze of corruption, brutality, anti-Communist slanders, sex perversion and sundry inhumanities upon which a dying social system feeds.
Briefly, the story concerns a young Negro student who runs afoul a fawning, "Uncle Tom" college president. Tricked into believing he will be allowed to continue his education on an earned scholarship if he leaves school for a year, the Invisible Man moves to New York where he finds work. As a direct result of inspiring an action against the eviction of an aged Negro couple, the hero comes in contact with the "Brotherhood," Ellison's literary term for "Communist Party."
Then in an atmosphere of utter unreality, the Invisible Man is made to move through a novelization of just about every anti-Communist cliche which has poured from the poison pens of stoolpigeons, both literary and political. Finally, in the midst of a nightmarish Harlem riot, the hero falls through a man-hole and decides to hibernate there while writing the story of his life. From his man-hole home he concludes: "Now I know men are different and that all life is divided and that only in division is there true health. Hence again I have stayed in my hole, because up above there's an increasing passion to make men conform to a pattern."
Ellison, a talented young Negro who became "disenchanted" with left progressive literary movement some years ago, shows in this, his first novel, that he has progressed to a point of "disenchantment" with humanity as a whole. Among the first Negro characters introduced is a sharecropper who has violated his own daughter; the next group of characters are insane Negro veterans on a visit to whores in a brothel located close by the hero's school.
On the campus, the hero is conscious only of the "broad- hipped girls" and those who soon will "be sent home pregnant." He balances his vilification of Negro men and women by having Trueblood, the Negro sharecropper, tell the story of his incest to a white millionaire who secretly had wanted to do the same thing to a daughter who died.
From that incestuous scene, which runs to more than 16 full pages, the story moves to the brothel and a riot among the insane veterans, wherein, characteristic of Ellison's twisted unreality, the most intelligent character in the whole novel turns out to be an insane ex-medical doctor. Ellison has the insane vet say to Norton, the white millionaire philanthropist, referring to the Invisible Man:
"...he was made of the very mud of the region and he sees far less than you. Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the score-card of your achievement, a thing and not a man...a black, amorphous thing...And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force."This is a theme of the first half of the novel: that the Negro's invisibility allows him to manipulate the white oppressor as "a God, a force" through "grins," "yeses" and feigned "meekness," while the ruling whites achieve their "destiny" through their control of the Negro.
The second half continues on another level, seeking to combine the above theme with an attack on the working class and the Communist Party. The hero's introduction to unions is an unbelievable situation in which he is accused of being a stoolpigeon for having strayed by accident into a meeting of paint factory workers.
Ellison's Communists are drawn so closely to the Department of Justice stereotype that most reviewers have criticized the author for not having been more effective in this latest literary racket. A "Brother" asks the Invisible Man blandly on Page 231 "How would you like to be the next Booker T. Washington?" after hearing one speech.
On the basis of that one speech, the hero is hired at $50- per-week as the Harlem "leader," give $300 to get an apartment, and given a new name. In criticizing the hero's speech, a white Communist leader is made to say: "Yes, of course, you made an effective speech. But you mustn't waste your emotions on individuals, they don't count."
When Invisible Man is criticized by the "Brotherhood" for having organized a protest against the murder of a Negro by a policeman, he is told by a white leader: "You were not hired to think." And just a little later on the same leader followed with, "For all of us, the committee does the thinking. For all of us."
And still pressing the point, the white leader is made to say to the hero after more argument: "We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think, but to tell them."
As a "Brother," the hero went from speech to lecture to the bed of a rich white radical seductress who became entranced at one of his lectures on "The Woman Question." He met a Negro youth leader whom he describes contemptuously as looking "like a hipster, a zoot suiter, a sharpie--except his head of Persian lamb's wool had never known a straightener." He fought with Ras, The Destroyer, a caricature of a West Indian, whom the author paints as a fanatical fool on horseback with a hatred of all whites.
There are no real characters in "Invisible Man" nor are there any realistic situations. The structure, the characters and the situations are all contrived and resemble fever fantasy. The people are too obviously manipulated by the author to make the action meaningful.
In effect, it is 439 pages of contempt for humanity, written in an affected, pretentious and other-worldly style to suit the king pins of world white supremacy.
For the regimented publishing industry in the United States which will not publish Dr. W.E.B. DuBois' writings and those of white and Negro authors who uphold the dignity and right to visibility of Negroes are accepting only manuscripts depicting Negroes as the racist rulers conceive them to be. The rules are ready to "emancipate" one "Invisible Man" on condition that through such "emancipation" the millions are damned and disunited.
The author of "Invisible Man" has met the qualifications demanded of him. His book is "in."
It is sure to become a best seller, and Ellison is destined to blossom forth now as a much-sought-after lecturer- authority on Negro life and letters. And it will not be long before "Invisible Man" will be issued in a pocket book edition on whose cover will be a picture of a Negro and a half-naked blond.
"I was naive," Ellison has his hero write in the Prologue. "I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which only I could answer."
Ellison may be the victim of self-delusion to the point of believing the source of his answer; but it will be clear to any reader who isn't blind that the author fished his "answer" from the political sewer of anti-Communism. His book will prove this method to be good business but nauseating as art.