“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.