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”


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


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–

“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.

Three Days Before the Shooting . . . — Beginning Ralph Ellison’s Posthumous Second Novel

In 1952, Ralph Ellison secured his place in the American literary canon with the publication of his picaresque verbal tour de force, Invisible Man. He never published another novel in his lifetime. Five years after his death in 1994 saw the publication of Juneteenth, a book cobbled together from the sundry drafts that Ellison had spent over forty years crafting and revising. Those papers ran to over 2000 pages. Now, editors John F. Callahan and Adam Bradley have made good on the promise to release an expanded version of Ellison’s proposed second novel. That effort, new in hardback this month from Random House’s Modern Library series, is Three Days Before the Shooting . . ., a massive, complex, and perplexing volume running to 1101 pages — not including editors’ notes, chronology, prefaces, and introductions.

I usually eschew introductions (or at least read them after I’ve read the text proper) in the hopes of not having my reading colored by some critic’s own thoughts, but in the case of Three Days, with its bulk, with its mystery, it seemed necessary to see what Callahan and Bradley had to say. What, exactly, would I be reading? How was it put together? Is there a real novel here? Our esteemed editors point out that:

. . . one might reasonably have expected to find among [Ellison’s] papers a single manuscript very near to completion, bearing evidence of the difficult choices he had made during the protracted period of the novel’s composition. One might have expected, perhaps, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, a fragmented with a clearly drafted, clearly delineated beginning and middle, whose author’s notes and drafts pointed toward two or three endings, each of which followed and resolved the projected novel as a whole. Or, to cite a more contemporary example, it might have resembled Roberto Bolaño’s 2666; upon its posthumous publication in 2008, Bolaño’s editor remarked that, had the author lived to see it through to publication, “its dimensions, its general content would by no means have been very different from what they are now.” In the extreme, one might have expected something like James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, a glorious mess of a novel that defies the very generic restraints of the form.

Callahan and Bradley pose these novels only as examples to contrast Ellison’s work as “something else entirely: a series of related narrative fragments, several of which extend to over three hundred manuscript pages in length, that appear to cohere without truly completing one another.” There’s a fun laundry list of where and on what Ellison composed the work, including the various types of paper he used and the different machines on which he wrote. The logistics are important from an editors perspective, of course, and as an interested reader it’s fascinating to see how Callahan and Bradley put all of Ellison’s disparate sources together. But what becomes most apparent in their general introduction to the work is that, even as he was always writing, Ellison was stalling, hoping to revise his novel in light of social changes–only, those social changes were happening relatively rapidly. It took Ellison over eight years to produce and edit Invisible Man, a novel that brilliantly captures American identity in the postwar era. For his second novel, Ellison clearly wanted to engage in such a critique again, but the rapidity of social and cultural change seems to have outpaced his ability to write and edit. He satisfied his public and the literary establishment by publishing excerpts of the novel (eight in total, all reproduced in Three Days), but most of his writing career, at least in terms of publishing, was spent writing (and revising) essays and critiques.

Still. Forty years and only eight published snippets? Really? Our fearless editors seem exasperated themselves, writing, “The longer one puzzles over what Ellison left behind, the more maddening it seems that he did not simply will himself to bring the book to a close, that he didn’t find his way to that ‘meaningful form’ he sought.” And there is so much narrative here; Ellison’s major concern — beyond revising in light of cultural and social upheaval — was simply fitting his pieces into a coherent whole. Not that there isn’t a plot. To borrow again from our generous editors:

The basic plot of Ellison’s novel as it emerges in these manuscripts centers upon the connection, estrangement, and reconciliation of two characters. The one is a black jazzman-turned-preacher named Alonzo Hickman, the other a racist ‘white’ New England Senator named Adam Sunraider, formerly known as Bliss–a child of indeterminate race whom Hickman had raised from infancy to adolescence. The action of the novel concerns Hickman’s efforts to stave off Sunraider’s assassination at the hands of the Senator’s own estranged son, a young man named Severen.

Callahan and Bradley go on to point out that, of course, this is simply the bare bones of the plot; that Three Days teems with characters and voices and motifs and strange little riffs. So far, my reading of the book upholds this assertion–and also suggests that the best way to enjoy this book is simply to dive right in. Yeah, that’s right. Ignore all the context. Skip Callahan and Bradley’s prefatory material completely–it’s well-written, highly informative, and will get right in your way. Just start at page one and enjoy Ellison’s rhythm, his inimitable language, his bizarre sense of humor and his deep pathos.

The book opens with a prologue that details a visit Hickman and his congregation make to Washington, D.C. three days before the shooting of Senator Sunraider. They attempt to warn him but are blocked at all turns. Book One then opens immediately with that assassination attempt, seen from the perspective of a journalist named McIntyre who narrates Book One in first-person. The first few chapters are set in the panicked claustrophobia of the post-shooting Senate where police detain everyone present. These chapters detail the strange rumors that circulate about Sunraider, including

. . . the rumor that for a time during his youth the Senator had been the leader of an organization which wore black hoods and practiced obscene ceremonials with the ugliest and most worn-out prostitutes they could find. Like certain motorcycle gangs of today they also engaged in acts of violence and hooliganism and were accused of torturing people — derelicts and such. They were also said to have distributed Christmas baskets and comic books to the poor.

What a great punchline. These early episodes made me laugh out loud at least three times. They’re also rather unsettling, and, more than anything, intriguing. In short, so far the book compels reading, and it’s hard to believe that such inspired riffs won’t add up to greater things. Our editors warn that the book doesn’t so much “end” as simply “stop,” but, right now, I’m fine with that. Ellison fans who don’t own this will want to pick it up forthwith; anyone daunted by its size, scope, or the context of its creation might miss some really great writing. More to come.

Books To Look Forward To In 2010

A couple of months ago, this cryptic postcard arrived in the mail:

A second novel from Ralph Ellison? Wasn’t that Juneteenth, the posthumous work pieced together from thousands of pages and notes by Ellison’s literary executor, John Callahan? The one that was kinda sorta panned as a mess (or at least an incomplete vision)? A few weeks later, another postcard:

So we were still a little confused. Was Three Days Before the Shooting… a more complete version of Juneteenth, or a wholly separate novel? A week or two later, a third postcard showed up with some answers: Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting… is a re-edit of the material originally presented as Juneteenth back in 1999, expanded from 368 pages to 1136 pages. Hopefully, Ellison’s vision will be restored here. Modern Library plans to release Three Days Before the Shooting… in late January of 2010.

Don DeLillo‘s newest novel Point Omega (sounds like some G.I. Joe shit) will drop in early February of 2010. It’s a slim 128 pages, a novella really, which might be a nice change of pace. Here’s the cover:

Wells Towers had something of a hit this year with his collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, but maybe you didn’t read it because it was in oh-so cumbersome hardback. Thankfully, Picador will release Everything Ravaged in trade paperback in February of 2010. In the meantime, check out Chris Roth’s short adaptation of the title story:

There’s no release date yet for Jonathan Franzen‘s forthcoming novel Freedom, but it should come out next year. The novel is Franzen’s follow-up to his breakout hit, The Corrections. Can’t wait an indeterminate measure? The New Yorker published an excerpt called Good Neighborsearlier this year.

We began with a posthumous novel and will end with one: David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King may or may not come out in 2010 (some websites are citing 2011 now). We will not parse through the problems of unfinished, post-death work here but simply say we want to read it. We were intrigued by–and enjoyed–the portions of the novel that have been published thus far, and we love Wallace, and we’re greedy, and we want more.

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III

How much you enjoy the third collection The Paris Review Interviews will depend entirely on how much you enjoy reading intelligent and thoughtful writers discussing intelligent and thoughtful subjects. I happen to love reading author interviews–even interviews with authors I don’t particularly like–and hence, I enjoyed this book quite a bit.

Covering sixteen disparate authors and fifty-two tumultuous years, the interviews here are by turns insightful, hilarious, strange, and at times, infuriating. The first interview (the book is organized chronologically), a 1955 conversation with Ralph Ellison evokes all of these emotions. One can almost feel Ellison’s restraint as he patiently replies to asinine questions like, “Then you consider your novel a purely literary work as opposed to one in the tradition of social protest?” and, “But isn’t it going to be difficult for the Negro writer to escape provincialism when his literature is concerned with a minority?” If anything, these politicized charges prompt Ellison to some of the most salient observations about literature’s universalizing powers that I’ve ever read.

In his 1964 interview, poet William Carlos Williams also sheds quite a bit of light on his art and craft. Interestingly, his wife is also a major part of the interview, discussing at some length her own role in her husband’s writing. Beyond literature, craft, and writing, Williams also sets another early theme that unites the interviews collected here–dissing other writers. He calls T.S. Eliot a “conformist” determined to set poets back twenty years. Evelyn Waugh picks up on this theme in his 1963 interview. Of Faulkner: “I find Faulkner intolerably bad.” And Raymond Chandler: “I’m bored by all those slugs of whiskey. I don’t care for all the violence either.” Zing!

Don’t feel too bad for Chandler, though; he comes off funny and earthy and sad in his 1983 interview, especially when he discusses his alcoholism, and how and why he quit drinking. Apparently, teaching–and drinking–with John Cheever when the two were teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in 1973 had a major impact on Chandler’s decision to stop drinking.

John Cheever focuses mostly on the writing craft in his 1976 interview–not much talk of drinking here. He does, however, share this insight: “Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction.” I’ve never liked Cheever’s writing, but he’s a great interview. In his 1994 interview, Achebe–an author whose fiction (and essays) I do like comes off as far more insightful and far less pretentious. On why creative writing classes exist: “I think it’s very important for writers who need something else to do, especially in these precarious times. Many writers can’t make a living. So to be able to teach how to write is a valuable to them. But I don’t really know about its value to the student.” Lovely. MFAs beware!

The interviews collected here are funny, smart, and very entertaining–whether its Achebe on general misunderstandings of his famous Conrad essay, Salman Rushdie on New Wave Cinema, or Joyce Carol Oates on Finnegans Wake, The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is full of smart people talking about smart things–and what’s better than that? Highly recommended.

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume III is available October 28th, 2008 from Picador.