“The Narrative Is the Meaning”: More on Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting . . .

After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000 -- Jeff Wall

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.

7 thoughts on ““The Narrative Is the Meaning”: More on Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting . . .”

  1. I still have a hard time believing that this blog is the sole work of one person. How much do you read everyday?

    I’ve only read one Vollman, “Butterfly Stories” and “Europe Central” is on my list to read in 2010. Did you actually read all of Imperial? How many of his have you read?

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    1. I read for a minimum of an hour a day; usually more on weekends. I suppose I read about 12 – 16 hours a week, not counting internet and work. To clarify, I’ve only read a few excerpts from Imperial (NYTs; McSweeney’s), as well as a few frustrating interactions with it at the bookstore (it’s unwieldy, to say the least; the publisher also ignored my review copy requests, which, considering, is probably for the better. I’ve read 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs, which is a pretty good starting place, and The Rifles, which is excellent. I’m reading The Ice-Shirt right now and it’s really good and easy to read intermittently (it’s like one huge Nordic saga). Europe Central and Poor People have been hanging around my stack for waaaaaay too long now. I only brought Vollmann up b/c he’s such a prolific writer, and, I think, an “important” writer (whatever that means), and, like Ellison, he tends to write “issue” novels or “social novels.” I guess my basic point, which I’m not sure I did a good job of expressing clearly in the post, is that I think Ellison became paralyzed with the onus of following up Invisible Man; in contrast, Vollmann, freed from a real audience, can just publish publish publish. In publishing so much, he paradoxically limits his audience (Where to start? How to start?)

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  2. Yeah, it’s a good point and you made it well, I guess when I see mention of Ralph Ellison and William Vollman I have more fun talking about Vollmann. I read Invisible Man and really liked it and while Ellison is definitely the more “important” writer, Vollmann has the whole “are-you-kidding-me?” aspect to his work. All the crack smoking and prostitutes and train riding and living in an office for a year living on candy bars, etc., when I first started learning about him I almost didn’t believe all of it. But since we already have people like James Frey lying about their lives I just figured if Vollmann was fake he would have been caught by now.

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    1. Well, Vollmann’s smart enough to call all of his investigations “novels,” giving him free rein. In his notes for The Ice-Shirt, he talks about how he’s taken liberties with all the Nordic histories and sagas as a way of getting to a “truer” truth (or whatever). Frey’s problem was that he was a hack writer and couldn’t tell a deeper truth through fiction–he lacked the art. He had to sell his book as “all true” to an audience that prefers tabloid exploitation to “truth via art” (but doesn’t realize that this is what they prefer). I feel bad for Frey. I have a special love for con-men.

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  3. Not a comment on the book, but of the photograph. Thank you for that. I saw Wall’s exhibition in London about 5 years ago, and I have always remembered that photograph above all the others. It is so poignant.

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