Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Anne Ferran
I read Invisible Man (#19 on the Modern Library’s list) for the first time in high school. It was required reading, as it is deemed a Very Important Novel in American Literature. At that time it was a complete mystery to me, unfathomable, incomprehensible even at the sentence level. But it left a mark on me, like a worm furrowed into my consciousness.
When I read it for the second time some 20 years later, the mystery became intrigue, and on a third reading the intrigue deepened. This is a very important novel. It is probably the greatest explication of this unique phenomenon that is American racism. It is also the kind of novel you can read again and again, always finding some new layer to it.
The story flows in a first-person stream of consciousness from a nameless narrator. It is full of scenes of violence that are shocking not so much because they are graphic (which they are) but because they are so real. It is driven by a character who is as off-putting as he is attractive. He is pained, idealistic, eccentric, angry, ambitious; he is smart, he is weak unless he is strong, he is cynical and loving. The story is filled as well with all kinds of other lively scenes—it is chock-full, in fact, of action and plot. The narrator starts by reminiscing about events from his boyhood, his grandfather who’d been born into slavery and whose dying words set seeds of revolt in his heart, the mystifying and frightening ordeals he was forced to endure because he hadn’t yet found a way to resist, and continues on through his increasing formulation of himself against the dominant white world and his intertwining interactions with societies of supposedly like-minded revolutionaries. What makes it a challenging and intriguing read is the density of it. There is so much going on—so many thoughts, so many emotions, so many activities, so many people, so much talk. And the prose itself is dense. It is full of allusions and wonderful words. It captures dialects. It is humorous. It is 500 pages of poetry wearing the mantel of a plot-driven narrative.
The novel when written was contemporary, of course. It captured its own time and place, and gave voice to the attitudes and feelings that were bubbling up at the time. It was in the avant-garde of the civil rights movement, which would reach its full expression a decade or so later but had been fomenting for a long while. From the vantage point of today, some 60 years after this novel’s publication, it offers both an interesting view through a window of history and also, simultaneously, an uncomfortable reminder of the persistence of American racism, its long, long poisoning infusion, that makes it as much a part of Americanism as any of the other notions explored in the novel: New York City, Louis Armstrong, church-going, freedom of thought and expression, ingrained inclination toward rebellion against injustice, optimism.
Aside from its place in the civil history of this country, the novel stands strong as literature. Anyone reading this novel could see him- or herself as the invisible man. Anyone could be the person not seeing him. It speaks to something deep inside the human spirit, and it is an engrossing story with an artistic style. It is a work of art that burrows into you and stays with you for life.
Every American should read this novel. I recommend once in adolescence, when the brain and spirit are pliant enough to absorb it without having to understand it, and then at least two or three more times as an adult.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also an editorial assistant for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.