Malcolm Bradbury

True Voice of the Great Missing American Novel

Juneteenth

By

Hamish Hamilton 384pp £16.99 order from our bookshop

Ralph Ellison is one of the greatest modern African American (or, as he would probably have preferred, American Negro) novelists. In 1952 he published his first novel, Invisible Man, a book startling for its vision, rhetorical verve, and cunningly devised irony. It strangely mixed naturalism, expressionism and surrealism; its mood was apocalyptic. ‘I am an invisible man,’ the narration begins. Invisible Man is a figure for the times – an existential hero, a version of Dostoevsky’s underground man, a confidence trickster. He is also black and a stereotype, invisible by definition. His struggles, with social and political pressures, personal humiliations, his state of non-being or ‘hibernation’, form an anxious black comedy. But the triumph of the book is the formation of a voice, of invisibility and ‘buggy jiving’, which ultimately becomes authoritative. The novel ends by sharing invisibility: ‘Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?’

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