Why didn’t Ralph Ellison publish Three Days Before the Shooting . . . in his lifetime? I’m coming to the end of Book I–about one quarter of the way through the massive, newly-published volume from Random House’s Modern Library, and it’s beyond me why Ellison didn’t just publish the damn thing. I’ve been reading a chapter every day or so–a leisurely pace, to be sure (the book isn’t going anywhere, and this is more or less it for Ellison’s fiction), and each chapter reads like a discrete little story, but one that folds right into the overall narrative nonetheless. As I pointed out in my early review of the book, editors John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley suggest that Ellison thought his material was strong but lacked a “meaningful form,” that he didn’t want the book to repeat the picaresque romp of Invisible Man. According to citations in Arnold Rampersad’s Ralph Ellison: A Biography, Ellison always felt a certain ambivalence about his works. Writing about one of the few pieces of fiction he actually allowed published after Invisible Man, a story called “Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar,” Ellison noted that “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.” Noting that “Out of the Hospital” was part of an unfinished early section of IM, Ellison suggested that his readers, “take this proffered middle, this agon, this passion, and supply their own beginning, and if an ending, a moral, or a perception is needed, let them supply their own. For me, of course, the narrative is the meaning.”
I happen to like one damned thing after another happening in my novels. Here’s what I don’t get–it’s hardly as if Ellison’s connective tissue between his episodes and riffs and romps is weak or insubstantial. Book I of Three Days reads, warts and all, like the beginning of a masterpiece (a de facto flawed masterpiece, of course). I’m not expecting an end or a conclusion or any sense of finality here–editors Callahan and Bradley have judiciously seen to that (perhaps underestimating contemporary audiences’ tolerance for ambiguity)–but, given the sheer weight of Ellison’s writing, and the many, many–over 40!–years that he worked on the second novel, it’s hard to find any exterior reasons as to why he couldn’t just wrap it up. Given that Invisible Man was received as a novel of definitive and important social commentary, was the burden to follow-up too much? Was it the special pressure of having to be the voice of a generation that led to Ellison’s sustained muteness? (Okay, okay, the guy published essays and gave lectures. But you know what I mean).
I can’t help but think of William T. Vollmann as I write this. Vollmann is the greatest living American writer that no one reads. His latest novel Imperial is an opus in the tradition of social realism (as well as the counter-tradition of experimental fiction). It’s 1344 pages, over 250 pages longer than Three Days. It’s particularly ungenerous and frustrating for the few folks that will actually dare to read it. But it’s hardly the pinnacle of Vollmann’s career. The guy’s published almost 20 books in as many years; many of these novels–most of them, really, run to over (many way over) 500 pages. Like Ellison, Vollmann’s best work is a sustained interrogation of culture that surpasses the limits of journalism, while at the same time honoring the journalistic technique’s regard for truth. It seems to me that we no longer live in an age where a writer as erudite and cunning and forceful as Vollmann might be a public figure, and that this has somehow paradoxically freed the man to write and publish whatever he wants. While voluminous Vollmann has left too much for posterity, too many entry points for daunted readers (although The Rifles or The Ice-Shirt will do fine), Ellison seems to have been paralyzed by the monolithic shadow of his canonical entry Invisible Man.
Perhaps Ellison’s unresolved hesitation was the manifestation of his anxiety to get it right, to speak not only perfectly for African-Americans, but also for his generation. The ’50s turned into the ’60s (and then the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s) and the social spectrum shifted. Against the backdrop of these changes, Ellison still felt like the core schema of his novel applied, yet he also felt the need to continue sculpting its many nuances. Why couldn’t trust his readers to “take this proffered middle, this agon, this passion” and make meaning of it? In any case, we’re left with the not-minor consolation of Three Days, a book which will surely go down in history as one of literature’s greatest puzzles.