Saul Bellow’s Review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man

“Man Underground,” a Review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, by Saul Bellow

A few years ago, in an otherwise dreary and better forgotten number of Horizon devoted to a louse-up of life in the United States, I read with great excitement an episode from Invisible Man. It described a free-for-all of blindfolded Negro boys at a stag party of the leading citizens of a small Southern town. Before being blindfolded the boys are made to stare at a naked white woman; then they are herded into the ring, and, after the battle royal, one of the fighters, his mouth full of blood, is called upon to give his high school valedictorian’s address. As he stands under the lights of the noisy room, the citizens rib him and make him repeat himself; an accidental reference to equality nearly ruins him, but everything ends well and he receives a handsome briefcase containing a scholarship to a Negro college.

This episode, I thought, might well be the high point of an excellent novel. It has turned out to be not the high point but rather one of the many peaks of a book of the very first order, a superb book. The valedictorian is himself Invisible Man. He adores the college but is thrown out before long by its president, Dr. Bledsoe, a great educator and leader of his race, for permitting a white visitor to visit the wrong places in the vicinity. Bearing what he believes to be a letter of recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe he comes to New York. The letter actually warns prospective employers against him. He is recruited by white radicals and becomes a Negro leader, and in the radical movement he learns eventually that throughout his entire life his relations with other men have been schematic; neither with Negroes nor with whites has he ever been visible, real. I think that in reading the Horizon excerpt I may have underestimated Mr. Ellison’s ambition and power for the following very good reason, that one is accustomed to expect excellent novels about boys, but a modern novel about men is exceedingly rare. For this enormously complex and difficult American experience of ours very few people are willing to make themselves morally and intellectually responsible. Consequently, maturity is hard to find. Continue reading “Saul Bellow’s Review of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man”

The Hobbit Reconsidered as a Picaresque Novel

Making a weekend trip from the east coast of Florida to its Gulf shores, my family and I listened to Nicol Williamson’s early 1970s recording of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Williamson’s recording is rich and expressive, his command of each voice bringing Tolkien’s characters to life.

I first heard Williamson’s recording over twenty years ago on a series of LPs that I checked out from the library. I had probably already read The Hobbit half a dozen times by then, but Williamson’s sonorous voice—along with the music and audio production effects—added another layer to Middle Earth.

My daughter, five, already familiar with the 1977 Rankin-Bass film, had no problem keeping pace with the story (although she occasionally asked me to pause for clarification on a few finer points, such as the delicate distinctions between goblins and trolls, or just who exactly is this guy Bard who shows up all of a sudden?) My favorite part of the entire weekend was my two year old imitating Gollum, sniveling a sinister, “My precious!” while squinting gleefully.

There are few books I’ve read as many times as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy: I read it countless times between the ages of 11 and 15, read it again as an undergrad, then read it again–twice, I’m not ashamed to admit—when Peter Jackson’s adaptations came out. However, despite reading The Hobbit repeatedly as a kid, I’ve never really gone back to it. It traffics in a gentle folklore that seems out of square with the epic mythmaking in The Lord of the Rings, and I think that I was always unsettled by a certain discontinuity between the two books that was easier to ignore if I never went back to The Hobbit.

Memory has a way of eliding details, and books are especially susceptible to this wearing down and smoothing out. So, I remembered The Hobbit as a quest, a miniature epic with Bilbo Baggins leaving the comforts of home to find treasure guarded by the dragon Smaug. I remembered Gandalf and the thirteen dwarves invading Bilbo’s tidy hobbit hole; I remembered trolls who turn to stone; I remembered riddles with Gollum and a ring that turns its wearer invisible; I remembered Mirkwood and barrels and the mountain lair of a dragon. I vaguely remembered the Battle of Five Armies, where the enormous eagles literally swoop in and save the day, deus ex machina style.

Listening to the unabridged audio, I was struck by just how much had escaped my memory: I barely recalled the spiders of Mirkwood or the talking ravens or the part where the wargs tree the dwarves. I had completely forgotten the shapeshifter Beorn, a creature straight out of Scandinavian myth.

One of Tolkien’s original illustrations for The Hobbit

What I found most strange in revisiting The Hobbit though was its radical compression, its tendency and willingness to pivot sharply, to cast its characters about or trample them under (metaphorical and sometimes literal) foot, or throw them in dungeons or barrels or some other danger.

Whereas The Lord of the Rings progresses from the folkloric feel of The Shire through to the high-adventure sweep of Icelandic saga and ultimately to a King Jamesish condensation of near-pure archetypery (and back again, of course), The Hobbit showcases a rambling, flowing, discursive, “out of the frying pan, into the fire” rhythm.

In short, The Hobbit, as it turns out, is a picaresque novel.

And just what is a picaresque novel, and why is The Hobbit one?, you may or may not ask.

Michael Seidel offers a clear definition in his introduction to Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (an excellent picaresque, by the way):

. . . the tradition of Continental picaresque, or rogue, literature . . .  became popular throughout Europe with the publication of Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in Spain. Picarós and picarás are orphans, vagabonds, desperadoes, and reprobates trying to manipulate the conventions of a world largely determined by established family and class connections. . . . Picaresque fiction is the story of outsiders trying to get in, and the fortunes of the protagonist often depend on adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior as picaresque characters become who they need to be to survive.

The Hobbit is very much the story of the topsy-turvy turns of Bilbo Baggins’s identity. At the adventure’s outset, he’s a respectable—comfortable—Baggins of Bag End. Not the sort of fellow who goes on adventures. And yet he’s enlisted by Gandalf to serve as burglar for the expedition, a picaró in the making who steals a purse from a troll and never looks back.

It’s not just Bilbo’s various thefts, but also his “adaptable, protean, and duplicitous behavior” that marks him as a picaró. His scheming is evident repeatedly in the novel, whether he’s riddling with Gollum or Smaug, devising a breakout from the Elf King of Mirkwood’s dungeon, or playing the long con against the parties involved in the Battle of Five Armies. He echoes Gandalf in this way, whose talents seem to veer more toward trickery and cunning than dazzling spells or marvelous magic.

Bilbo’s picaresque turns of fortune and turns of identity are neatly summarized in a late exchange with yon dragon Smaug, who immediately calls him out as a picaró:

“You have nice manners for a thief and a liar,” said the dragon. “You seem familiar with my name, but I don’t seem to remember smelling you before. Who are you and where do you come from, may I ask?”

“You may indeed! I come from under the hill, and under hills and over the hills my paths led. And through the air, I am he that walks unseen.”

“So I can well believe,” said Smaug, “but that is hardly our usual name.”

“I am the clue-finder, the web-cutter, the stinging fly. I am chosen for the lucky number.”

“Lovely titles!” sneered the dragon. “But lucky numbers don’t always come off.”

“I am he that buries his friends alive and drowns them and draws them alive again from the water. I came from the end of a bag, but no bag went over me.”

“These don’t sound so creditable,” scoffed Smaug.

“I am the friend of bears and the guest of eagles. I am Ringwinner and Luckwearer; and I am Barrel-rider,” went on Bilbo beginning to be pleased with his riddling.

“That’s better!” said Smaug. “But don’t let your imagination run away with you!”

But imagination is of course the primary tool of the picaró, and Bilbo is no slouch: The Hobbit condemns evil, greedy Smaug when it shows the rewards of letting “your imagination run away with you.” Indeed, the entire novel is a running away, a constant deflection of stable identity, as Bilbo twists and turns his way back to The Shire.

And what happens to Bilbo? What happens to that once-stable, once-comfortable identity? We learn at the novel’s end about the queering of his identity—

. . . he had lost his reputation. It is true that for ever after he remained an elf-friend, and had the honour of dwarves, wizards, and all such folk as ever passed that way; but he was no longer quite respectable. He was in fact held by all the hobbits of the neighbourhood to be ‘queer’—except by his nephews and nieces on the Took side, but even they were not encouraged in their friendship by their elders. I am sorry to say he did not mind.

So! Queer, strange Baggins the  picaró embraces his “Took side,” his disreputable adventuring side. And still the narrative comes to a lovely cozy warm respectable ending, Bilbo’s identity transformed, sullied, illuminated, and enlarged by his picaresque adventure.

And the picaresque? Well, maybe I’ve stretched its definition a bit simply because I’m so fond of picaresque narratives these days. Maybe I’ve simply revisited a childhood classic and imposed a new viewpoint upon it. (And maybe years and years from now I’ll revisit it again with grandchildren, and find something new and different there as well. I hope).

I think what I enjoyed most about The Hobbit this time was hearing the rambling discursiveness of it all—here we have a narrative that understands the perilous and precarious position of the storyteller, he or she who might lose the thread—or worse, lose the audience!—at any damn time. So keep the story sailing, shifting, rambling out into new moods, modes, movements.

Seidel gives us a lovely definition of picaresque above, but can’t do better than Ralph Ellison who, in describing his modernist classic Invisible Man, offers us a description of the picaresque as “one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”

And this is the power of The Hobbit—which is to say the staying power of The Hobbit—its ability to evoke the imaginative force of one damned thing after another sheerly happening for generation after generation.

Ralph Ellison Interview (Film, 1966)

The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s Novel About Identity and Storytelling in North Korea

Late in Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, the titular protagonist muses that, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.” The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel about what it means to claim agency—to literally make a self—in a totalitarian society that assigns an official narrative to each of its citizens. Our hero is Jun Do, a boy who takes on a martyr’s name like all North Korean orphans, even though he believes with absolute commitment in a narrative he’s created where he’s the son of the man who keeps him and the other orphan boys. His mother? Well, she’s a phantom in a photograph, a beautiful singer disappeared on a forgotten night.

In the orphanage, Jun Do decides which boys will eat and which ones will not, who will freeze and who will stay warm. He even chooses their names from the list of Revolutionary Martyrs. From the outset of his life, Jun Do must navigate a world where his own capacity for human feeling is always threatened, preëmpted, or outright destroyed by institutionalized suffering.

Reaching early adulthood, Jun Do joins the army where he’s trained in martial arts. He joins a tunnel unit, learning how to fight in total darkness. In the tunnels, Jun Do receives the first of many opportunities to defect (in this case to South Korea). Johnson explores the tension of such a choice again and again. In time, a special unit conscripts Jun Do to “pluck” (the official euphemism for kidnap) Japanese citizens from their own beaches and seafronts. As a reward for his skills, he’s allowed to learn English, and soon winds up as a radio spy on a North Korean fishing vessel (these are the best moments of the book). During this time, Jun Do eavesdrops on two American women who plan to row around the world, a plot point that resurfaces in the novel’s second-half. He also finds himself a decorated hero of North Korea—but almost as soon as he finds a would-be home and family in the fishing vessel and crew, he’s plucked away on a mission to Texas.

Okay: If the paragraph above seems all over the place, that’s because the first part of The Orphan Master’s Son, “The Biography of Jun Do,” is all over the place—in a good way. There’s a dazzling giddiness to the tale of Jun Do, and the swift turns of his identity read like a picaresque novel. I was repeatedly reminded of Candide or Invisible Man. It’s worth recalling Ralph Ellison’s description of Invisible Man : “it stands on its own if only as one of those pieces of writing which consists mainly of one damned thing after another sheerly happening.”

“The Biography of Jun Do” stands on its own as well, and for me it was the highlight of The Orphan Master’s Son, full of black humor, satirical venom, and genuine pathos. It also showcases some of the best prose in the novel. Let me share some, at length. Here’s the captain of the fishing boat (probably my favorite character in the novel). A bit of context: Pyongyang orders the fishing boat to obtain fresh shrimp, a mission that will take them illegally into Russian waters—an offense the captain has already been incarcerated for:

“The Russians gave me four years,” he said. “Four years on a fish-gutting ship, forever at sea, never once did we go to port. I got the Russians to let my crew go. They were young, village boys mostly. But next time? I doubt it.”

“We’ll just go out for shrimp,” the Pilot said, “and if we don’t get any, we don’t get any.”

The Captain didn’t say anything to that plan. “The trawlers were always coming,” he said. “They’d be out for weeks and then show up to transfer their catch to our prison ship. You never knew what it would be. You’d be down on the gutting floor, and you’d hear the engines of a trawler coming astern and then the hydraulic gates opening up and sometimes we’d even stand on our saw tables because down the chute, like a wave, would come thousands of fish—yellowtail, cod, snapper, even little sardines—and suddenly you were hip deep in them, and you’d fire up your pneumatic saws because nobody was getting out until you’d gutted your way out. Sometimes the fish were hoarfrosted from six weeks in a hold and sometimes they’d been caught that morning and still had the slime of life on them.

“Toward afternoon, they’d sluice the drains, and thousands of liters of guts would purge into the sea. We’d always go up top to watch that. Out of nowhere, clouds of seabirds would appear and then the topfish and sharks—believe me, a real frenzy. And then from below would rise the squid, huge ones from the Arctic, their albino color like milk in the water. When they got agitated, their flesh turned red and white, red and white, and when they struck, to stun their victims, they lanterned up, flashing bright as you could imagine. It was like watching underwater lightning to see them attack.

“One day, two trawlers decided to catch those squid. One set a drop net that hung deep in the water. The bottom of this net was tethered to the other trawler, which acted like a tug. The squid slowly surfaced, a hundred kilos some of them, and when they started to flash, the net was towed beneath them and buttoned up.

“We all watched from the deck. We cheered, if you can believe that. Then we went back to work as if hundreds of squid, electric with anger, weren’t about to come down that chute and swamp the lot of us. Send down a thousand sharks, please—they don’t have ten arms and black beaks. Sharks don’t get angry or have giant eyes or suckers with hooks on them. God, the sound of the squid tumbling down the chute, the jets of ink, their beaks against the stainless steel, the colors of them, flashing. There was this little guy on board, Vietnamese, I’ll never forget him. A nice guy for sure, kind of green, much like our young Second Mate, and I sort of took him under my wing. He was a kid, didn’t know anything about anything yet. And his wrists, if you’d seen them. They were no bigger than this.”

Jun Do heard the story as if it were being broadcast from some far-off, unknown place. Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack—if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.

“What was his name?” he asked the Captain.

“The thing is,” the Captain said, “the Russians aren’t the ones who took her from me. All the Russians wanted was four years. After four years they let me go. But here, it never ends. Here, there is no limit to anything.”

“What’s that mean?” the Pilot asked.

“It means wheel her around,” the Captain told him. “We’re heading north again.”

The Pilot said, “You’re not going to do anything stupid, are you?”

“What I’m going to do is get us some shrimp.”

Jun Do asked him, “Were you shrimping when the Russians got you?”

But the Captain had closed his eyes. “Vu,” he said. “The boy’s name was Vu.”

I’ve quoted so much here—really more than belongs in a book review, I suppose—because I think that this little story perfectly condenses the novel’s best features. Our characters are forced into an impossible situation, one that can’t have a good end for them. We also get the sense of the deep personal loss—of disappeared persons—that haunts The Orphan Master’s Son. And: The power of story-telling, to move and motivate and thrill, but also to be yet another agent in the aforementioned disappearing.

The excerpt above is a really great stand-alone piece of writing, and I guess I feel the need to clarify that I think Johnson is a pretty good writer before I set about telling you why I didn’t like the second half of The Orphan Master’s Son.

I should probably clarify that I think many people will enjoy this novel and find it very moving and that the faults I found in its second half likely have more to do with my taste as a reader than they do Johnson’s skill as a writer, which skill,  again I’ve tried to demonstrate is accomplished. I like picaresque novels, fragmentary novels, novels that let the reader do the heavy-lifting, novels that leave open spaces and gaps. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is such a novel. The second half, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” settles down into a plot- and motif-driven arc that too-often overstates its case. For me, a good riff of dark, sad, occasionally hilarious tales cohered too heavily in “Confessions” into a gelatinous mess of plot strands verging on soap opera. Johnson’s admirable ambition leads him to overload the novel with unmanageable plot turns and leitmotifs.

The biggest problem though is the overwhelming suspicion that Johnson is simply out of his element in trying to inhabit the North Korean imagination. Although he’s clearly done his research, North Korea is essentially closed to the rest of the world. And Johnson is a U.S. American. I mean, there’s this whole other impossible-to-digest ball of wax here that makes Johnson’s admirable intent to write a novel about “propaganda” just way too complicated to suss out in a review, and I’ll admit that I tend to read like a reviewer, and that these notions just bugged the hell out of me as the novel progressed.

Johnson’s novel repeatedly reminded me of David Mitchell’s excellent historical epic The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a book that also obsesses over storytelling and identity in a closed nation. Mitchell’s novel provides the Western reader with a European surrogate in the titular de Zoet, an obvious device that nonetheless adds to the book a richness—and frankly an authenticity—that The Orphan Master’s Son lacks. Johnson’s title character (again, reader surrogate) is North Korean, and even though Johnson takes pains to show the internal machinations of his character’s changing personality, there’s a deeply U.S. American perspective that underwrites his psychology. We’re repeatedly told that in North Korea it’s the story that’s absolute, “But in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.” By changing his story, Jun Do emotionally, spiritually, psychologically (choose your idiom) defects to The Land of Opportunity.

If I’ve withheld summarizing or even illustrating the plot of “The Confessions of Commander of Ga,” I’ve done so to avoid spoilers. Again, many people will dig this novel, and any explication would ruin its second half. Let’s just say there’s an actress. And a second life. And those rowers come up again. And a love story. And a branding iron. And the Americans. And The Dear Leader, of course. And Casablanca. And dogs. Etc.

The Orphan Master’s Son is very much a dystopian novel, and its second half often reads like the love story from 1984 (should I point out here how dreary I often found that plot form 1984? No? Fair enough). Toward the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, I began imagining how the novel might read as a work divorced from historical or political reality, as its own dystopian blend—what would The Orphan Master’s Son be stripped of all its North Korean baggage? (This is a ridiculous question, of course, but it is the question I asked myself). I think it would be a much better book, one that would allow Johnson more breathing room to play with the big issues that he’s ultimately addressing here—what it means to tell a story, what it means to create, what it means to love a person who can not just change, but also disappear. These are the issues that Johnson tackles with aplomb; what’s missing though, I think, is a genuine take on what it means to be a North Korean in search of identity.

Ralph Ellison: “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest”

INTERVIEWER

Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest.

ELLISON

Now, mind, I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens, and Twain?

From his 1955 Paris Review interview.

“Sybil, You Were Raped by Santa Claus” (Ellison’s Invisible Man)

From Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a shocking, weird, gross, Christmasy reference near the end of the book. The context is that, in 1950s America, Sibyl, a white woman, wants the narrator, a black man, to fulfill her rape fantasy. Page 522 of my edition–

Santa Claus Rape in Ellison’s Invisible Man

I’m finishing up Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and I came to this shocking, weird, gross, Christmasy reference near the end of the book. The context is that, in 1950s America, Sibyl, a white woman, wants the narrator, a black man, to fulfill her rape fantasy. Page 522 of my edition–