I was thumbing through the recent collection of Muriel Spark's essays, The Informed Air, and was struck by something she said about contemporary literature. I can't recall it exactly, but her point was that not all good literature is a social good, singling out what she saw as a glut of literature exploring victimization and suffering. She believed that if we really wanted to see social change through literature, writers must abandon tragedy and turn to comedy and satire; they must make the powerful look ridiculous.
I was reminded of that when reading Invisible Man, because I couldn't help but notice how similar it is to Black Boy. Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison were friends, and had strikingly similar experiences which are recounted in the two books: they are Southerners driven north by racial animus (Wright to Chicago, Ellison to New York) where they flirt with Communism before becoming disillusioned with the way that it suppresses their individuality and intellect. Ellison's unnamed narrator is invisible because, as a black man, whites don't see him--in the opening chapter he talks about savagely beating a white man who bumped him on the street, literally not noticing that he was there--but also because those who claim to want to help him and help black communities are incapable of seeing him as anything but a political tool.
But where Black Boy is the kind of book that Spark warned against, intensely focused on Wright's individual suffering and victimhood, Invisible Man is something wildly different--not a satire, really, but grimly comic, sometimes bordering on the fantastical. The opening paragraph establishes the narrator (in a mode cribbed from Notes From the Underground) hiding out in a forgotten basement, stealing electricity to power the thousands of lightbulbs with which he has decorated his sanctuary. That warped sense of not-quite-realism pervades the book, but in a way it is more appropriate than the hyper-realism of Wright, who wants the reader to know exactly what happened to him, when, why, and who. It is the mode of someone who is shut out from the conventional structures of power, society, and literature.
The narrator begins as an eager young student at a predominantly black Southern university who, as a consequence of an ill-fated job chauffeuring a major donor around town, is sent to New York under false promises of employment by the university president. There he becomes involved with an organization called the Brotherhood--I'm not sure, but I don't think the book ever uses the term "Communist"--who need his public speaking abilities to advance their cause. Summarizing the plot this way makes it seem rather straightforward, but the actual experience of the book is chaotic. In fact, Ellison writes about chaos with a facility that I've never seen before. A couple scenes stand out: one in the beginning of the book in which the narrator and a number of other black boys take part in a "battle royal" for the prize of a university scholarship, and the brilliant end piece in which Harlem erupts into race riots.
But the one that amazed me the most is the story of the narrator's chauffeuring job. He inadvertently drives the donor past the house of a poor black man who is reviled for impregnating his own daughter; the donor insists that they stop and talk to the man, who tells them his story. This is gruesome and outlandish enough, but when the donor becomes faint from shock at the story he's been told, the narrator has nowhere to take him but to a nearby tavern which has been overrun by a group of black veterans from the local insane asylum. This series of events is preposterous, hilarious, captivating, tragic--utterly ridiculous, but perfectly done. In the end, the donor is treated by a half-mad veteran doctor who, as the mad do, sees things better than either the donor or the narrator:
"A little child shall lead them," the vet said with a smile. "But seriously, because you both fail to understand what is happening to you. You cannot see or hear or smell the truth of what you see--and you, looking for destiny! It's classic! And the boy, this automaton, 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 scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child, or even less--a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power, are not a man to him, but a God, a force--"
The novel is full of terrific stuff like that, but the one other terrific thing that seems necessary to mention is the figure of Ras the Exhorter (laster Ras the Destroyer), a Harlem demagogue who urges the black community to complete separation from whites as well as racial violence. He pops up now and then opposing the Brotherhood's efforts in Harlem, and his influence leads directly to the race riot of the book's climax. Check out this description of him at that point:
They moved in a tight-knit order, carrying sticks and clubs, shotguns and rifles, led by Ras the Exhorter become Ras the Destroyer upon a great black horse. The new Ras of a haughty, vulgar dignity, dressed in the costume of an Abyssinian chieftain; a fur cap on his head, his arm bearing a shield, a cape made of the skin of some wild animal around his shoulders. A figure more out of a dream than out of Harlem, than out of even this Harlem night, yet real, alive, alarming.
Real, alive, alarming--the poisoned racial atmosphere of America, Ellison shows us, has a way of dredging up nightmares and turning them into reality. I think this is what Spark was talking about. For all of Wright's honesty, there's nothing as universally frightening in Black Boy as the image of Ras the Destroyer in his warlord's outfit, wreaking havoc on a Harlem night,