These next few books from the 100 greatest novels mainly focus on race. We hear a lot about the Civil War and the freeing of slaves and we hear a lot about the 1960s, MLK, and the fight for equality. What many people forget is that there were 100 years of oppression, discrimination, and abuse between those events. That is where these novels fall.
That said, I’m not going to talk about the race issues of the novels. As a middle class white guy historically, socially, and racially removed from that era, there’s not much I could add to the conversation. So I’ll talk about the novels from a literary point of view.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
This novel follows an unnamed narrator from graduating high school and starting college to leaving college and moving to New York and trying to find his way. He becomes a speaker for an organization named the Brotherhood, speaking about race and social issues. Then he falls into a manhole.
The story is consistently engrossing and always somewhat entertaining and depressing. Ellison’s writing sometimes glosses over events to the point that I wasn’t sure if it happened or not (“Wait, what just blew up? Did they have sex or not?”). There’s much philosophy and social issues hashed out between characters and inside the narrator’s head. This could turn some people off but I enjoyed it. I never thought it detracted from the overall storyline but actually pushed the story forward. These moral and philosophical arguments are what made him and other characters do what they did, whether it was right or not. His ultimate decision is to become invisible. Not physically, but because others refuse to see him and he accepts that.
I have never read a novel that did so little to make a protagonist likable but ended with me fighting for his life so passionately. This is a story of Bigger Thomas, a poor African American living in Chicago in the 1930s. He’s a bully. He’s mean to his family, he beats up his friends, he masturbates in movie theaters, and he refuses to keep a job, preferring to make his family live off of government help. What a lovable person! And yet. Keep reading. By the end I was praying, demanding, hoping, and crying for his life to be spared. Only a masterful author like Richard Wright could pull off a task like this and he does it beautifully.
Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
Reading through the 100 greatest novels, this is the first novel that has really inspired me to write. I loved the writing style of Saul Bellow. It reminded me a lot of Kurt Vonnegut: a very conversational 1st person narrative. As for the story, what an incredibly enjoyable adventure. Henderson, middle-aged and somewhat dissatified with life (he explains it as an inner voice that repeats, “I want, I want,” without ever saying what it is it’s wanting), decides to travel to Africa with a friend. He leaves his friend and hires a guide to bring him to far off African cities. He finds one and gets in trouble and leaves. He finds another and befriends the King, becomes the Sungo (the rain king), and acts like a lion. And that’s about it. It’s a great story with some incredible narration. I was tweeting and facebooking quotes from the book left and right. Henry Miller described this novel perfectly: “It made me dance.”
On a side note, I discovered a great series of eBooks. They’re called History in an Hour and they are just short, concise histories of different topics. I read Henry VIII’s Wives this past week and loved it. Anyways, thanks for keeping up with this. Next up is Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara.
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