In 1945, an unassuming black man from Oklahoma City began constructing an intricate book inside a barn in Vermont. Owing to its complexity and sophistication, the book took more than six years to assemble. When Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man exploded onto the scene in 1952, it caught countless minds on fire. Critics hailed it as one of the most important books of the times, a masterpiece that confronted America’s race problem through a series of blistering allegories. What critics couldn’t predict, however, was how prescient and influential the book would become.
The naked woman gyrates sensuously before the group of young black men, conjuring up as much awkwardness as arousal. Moments later, the young men are blindfolded, corralled into a boxing ring, and told to start fighting—a “battle royal.” They pummel each other in a chaotic frenzy until one of them is declared victor. Following the fight, the sweaty and bruised contestants all clamor onto a pile of prize money that’s rigged with an electrical current, shocking the young men into convulsions. It’s all fun and games for the rich white men watching. The finale comes when one of the fighters, “the smartest boy we got out there in Greenwood,” stands to deliver a speech. Blood spews from his mouth as he argues for the social responsibility of Negroes.
LISTEN: In a rare archival interview, Ralph Ellison, one of Oklahoma’s most important writers, reveals the illness that led him to write Invisible Man, and reads a passage from his second novel, which he never completed.
The opening chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man hooked America in the eye when it first appeared in 1952. It wasn’t a friendly book then, and it’s grown even more ferocious through the years. In those days, America’s civil rights discussions had long been dominated by decades of polite, deferential rhetoric from black leaders like Booker T. Washington. America had never heard from a black man who dared scream in its face, at least not in the way that Ellison did. Invisible Man earned him a National Book Award and a reputation.
Ellison was a terror. Young black writers raged because he wasn’t helpful to them and sometimes even hurt budding careers; he used his literary status to enjoy privileged (mainly white) company; he was “potentially violent, very violent” according to a friend; he unapologetically fucked women he wasn’t supposed to, while married to a woman he loved and tormented. We owe him our thanks for not being a nice guy and instead choosing a life of passion and freedom. True to his sense of artistic integrity, Ellison eventually committed the ultimate crime of modern American literature: He refused to let filmmakers turn his book into a movie.
It only took Hollywood 47 years to figure out how to get around Ellison’s disapproval. In 1999, it released a cinematic homage: Fight Club, based on the 1996 book by Chuck Palahniuk. Both works have nameless narrators. Both narrators live off the grid in desolate urban settings. Both become leaders of anti-establishment organizations (in Fight Club it’s Project Mayhem, in Invisible Man, it’s The Brotherhood). Both wrestle with madness vis-à-vis lobotomies, one by shock, the other by bullet. The two books tackle class warfare and culminate in scenes of social upheaval, with Invisible Man’s Harlem erupting into a race riot while Fight Club ends with exploding buildings.
In one direct parallel, Ellison’s narrator gives the elegy for a fallen Brotherhood comrade, during which he repeats the phrase “His name was Tod Clifton” to drum in a sense of individuality. When a Project Mayhem comrade dies in Fight Club, the narrator repeats “His name is Robert Paulson” and the phrase echoes among the group. And then there are instances where Fight Club’s narrator argues with Invisible Man:
“Be your own father, young man,” a man advises Ellison’s narrator.
“Maybe we didn’t need a father to complete ourselves,” says Fight Club.
Nobody can accuse Palahniuk of plagiarizing Invisible Man. Palahniuk’s book is one continuous monologue, a voice that epitomizes the barbaric yelp of today’s disenfranchised cubicle workers. Fight Club’s young man tries to reclaim his masculinity while embracing the madness of a world. He’s confused, irreverent, caustic, and earnest. Ellison’s narrator is older, tougher, and more soulful than Palahniuk’s speaker. Readers of Invisible Man aren’t talked at. Instead, they’re led on an allegorical journey through America’s racial divide.
Invisible Man is a thank-you note to the monsters who’ve betrayed you.
While the congruence between Invisible Man and Fight Club seems uncanny, Chuck Palahniuk claimed that he was actually writing “The Great Gatsby, just updated a little.” Ellison, on the other hand, credited the modernist poet T.S. Eliot as one of his major inspirations, and Ellison used the influence to let his subconscious flower. Invisible Man contains sudden turns into jazz song and poetry, interruptions that confound and entice. Ellison’s narrator grapples with his plural identities of student, worker, leader, lover, and citizen, fragmenting his sense of self. Invisible Man isn’t just a novel, but Ellison’s own experience of individuation—the process whereby a person integrates his subconscious into his consciousness and emerges as a more authentic and fully-realized human.  As a human experience catalogued, Invisible Man is a thank-you note to the monsters who’ve betrayed you, a fist in the face of power, a triumphant reckoning with the mess in the mirror. Where Fight Club peaks as a manifesto against corporatism, Invisible Man is a transcendent bildungsroman for modern man.
Sixty some years after its publication, Invisible Man still feels dangerous and alive. Eyeballs pop out of heads, rape fantasies are entertained, boilers explode. You can practically feel the book ticking in your hands as you turn the pages. Invisible Man has a thrilling narrative, but it’s also buttressed by existential meditations that now seem prescient. Ellison’s notion of invisibility is no longer exclusive to the experience of black Americans, it’s become a fundamental trait of the American anti-hero.
Ellison eventually committed the ultimate crime of modern American literature: He refused to let filmmakers turn his book into a movie.
When Fight Club premiered as a movie, it achieved modest success and, like the book, missed out on major awards. Nevertheless, it became pop-culture shorthand for anything having to do with alienation and social rebellion. Though Invisible Man was a critically acclaimed, it has never been made into a movie. There are, however, indications that the Ellison estate is softening its no-film stance. In 2013, the estate allowed a stage production of Invisible Man, on the condition that the producer kept a strict adherence to the text. The play was well-received but short lived.
At some point, the book will become public domain and a film will be made, Ellison be damned. Whether or not it’s a good idea to turn the book into a film is beside the point. Fight Club makes its clear that Invisible Man has, like any good rebel, already outgrown the control of its creator.
1. Decades before Invisible Man, the psychologist who came up with the theory of individuation wrote the book Liber Novus. Carl Jung claimed The Red Book (as it’s commonly called) formed the basis for all of his future work on the collective unconscious, synchronicity, and individuation. It remained relatively unknown until it was published in 2009. Illustrated and calligraphed by Jung himself, the book looks like an ancient medieval text, decorated by mythic drawings. The prose reads like a dense sacred text, at times dreamlike and profound and at others inaccessible and unsettling.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 5. March 1, 2014.