Invisible Man (Ellison)

Prompted by a World Premiere production of an adaptation of Ellison’s novel at Court Theatre in Chicago (, I decided to read Ellison’s novel again. Forgive the brief digression here. My barber once said, when speaking of a museum, “The museum doesn’t change, but my kid does.” Well, the book hasn’t changed, but I certainly have as a reader and as a person. This is a stunning novel. I remembered many of the set pieces, like the eviction scene, but I’d lost a lot of the details over the time, and I’ve become better at seeing how a book is put together. The prologue itself – just 10 pages – is an absolute masterpiece. Ellison’s syntax is staggering, even if the plot sometimes isn’t. (Where does Clifton come from? Why does he start selling Sambo dolls? Is he a character or a symbol?) And, as in Native Son, a book that this one is clearly in conversation with, things go off the rails a bit at the end because of the inclination each author has for speechifying.

It was interesting to see how the theatre production (approved by the Ellison estate) dealt with not only the major parts of the plot, but also some of the details – the protagonist’s inability to leave Mary’s (that name can’t be a coincidence) bank behind, the frightening interaction with Sybil near the end – are both dropped in the stage version, but seem quite important here. Then again, the play already clocks in at three hours; something had to go.

I know there’s a posthumous novel and some stories and essays. Has anyone read any of those?

I’m generally not a fan of re-reading. There’s so much out there to encounter for the first time. Now I’ll put it aside again for a while. I suspect it will still stand up the next time I read it. I think, on this night of the State of the Union, that I’m not the only one who needs to reminded that we should “[l]et man keep his many parts and you’ll have no tyrant states” (435).

An amazing book and an important production. Experience them both if you can.


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