Ralph Ellison - "Invisible Man"
The first amazing thing about "Invisible Man" is that it was written between 1947 and 1952. True, some raw and shocking books were written around that time; the Catcher in the Rye, On the Road and Catch-22 spring to mind. But none of them feature boys forced to fight each other blindfolded, electroshock therapy, a man living in the darkness of an underground hole, or an all-out race riot in Harlem with a leader in tribal dress, spear and shield.
The second amazing thing about "Invisible Man" is that I'd never heard of its existence until it came my way by pure chance. It is a great discredit to my literary education that I was never made aware of this masterpiece.
The novel deals with all aspects of black society, both in the South and in the North; not just black society at the time, but also black society of the future: it's prophetic in its description of an explosively tense community that is both tired of asking for what is long overdue, and profoundly uncertain about its identity and its attitude toward whites and fellow blacks alike.
But a convincing portrait of a society alone does not a great novel make --at least not for me. "Invisible Man", fortunately, reaches far, far beyond that. It is, above all, about the nameless protagonist, hapless victim of circumstance for the first half of the book, striving for a small piece of control in the second. His trials and tribulations are surreal, absurd, violent, sometimes funny, sometimes disgusting.
And finally, Ellison has a great control over language. He manages to switch from dreamlike sequences to straightforward but subtle narrative without missing a beat. No wonder it took him seven years to write it.
This novel, in short, deserves a much better fate than to be forgotten. Read it.