Because I recently read Invisible Man again and it’s long and draining and pretty much exactly from the same year as this book, I thought I would journal about this book as I am reading for a somewhat different sense of it.
This book starts off with a group of friends bullshitting in the street. As Cross Damon makes away from his group, he starts to feel a deeply encroaching stress and pressure take hold of him. We are subject to this stress from a close narrative, third-person voice and so as with the protagonist, we feel a similar feeling of pressure and claustrophobia.
As we move past this scene, we start to realize that Cross Damon is not a good man. He has impregnated his mistress, is about to find out she’s 15 (he’s 26), and he’s going to try to coerce her to abort the child so she can’t prosecute him for rape.
Richard Wright has never had much interest in having us like or sympathize with his protagonists.
“Negroes rolled in laughter, feeling that the powerful white world had been lowered to their own humble plane by the magic of comic words. One black boy danced ecstatically, then, holding his hands over his mouth as though he felt it unseemly to vent his savage mirth indoors, ran out of the cafe, leaving the door open. Upon the snowy sidewalk he screamed and howled and flapped his arms in the icy wind. For a moment he paused, then ran back to the door and , gasping for breath, said:
‘Man, that’s sure cool!’ He lifted his eyes to the grey sky. ‘You colored brother on Mars, come on down here and help us!'”
This first section hits a real kind of “Oh crap!” moment early on and the weird tension and closed in feeling evaporate. It’s a strange sensation to take a character so objectively not good and have us root for his relief so that we can experience it as well. Part of this pacing and structure comes from the fact that there are no breaks in the first 150 pages….it’s just straight action and narration. No chapters, no section breaks. Nothing.
Section 2: p 149-265
“He found that he had been deprived of the will to make decisions, that he had, by his flight, abandoned himself to be tossed and buffeted by the tyranny of daily minutia. Thrust thus back upon himself, his actions were snared in a web of self-love that made the images of his mind assume a hypnotic sway over his body that was more decisive than the food he ate to sustain himself.”
As the novel progresses, Cross Damon finds a way to sow chaos into every aspect of his life. As people gets in his way, he takes care of him. I am always fake surprised when I read a Richard Wright novel when it delves in to a treatise on Communism. Black Boy does this as soon as it moves away from the first half in pretty direct means. Native Son does it much less direct ways. Uncle Tom’s Children does avoid this kind of descent but does as the cost of showing a depraved representation of black life in America.
In this novel, it becomes a false messiah, as it does in Invisible Man.
Section 3: 265-310
“Cross rose and went out of the room, his eyes avoiding Bob who sobbed on the floor. he had no appetite, but he sat at the table and Eva served him As he chewed his food, he heard Gil’s voice rising in accusation, then Bo’s voice falling in meek pleas. Then a pause during which Bob coughed loudly. Finally there was a sound of footsteps in the hallway.Gil was saying something to Bob at the door, then the door closed. Cross looked at Eva; her eyes were full of fear, and her hand shook slightly as she ate. Gil came briskly to the table, sat, keeping his eyes in front of him. He volunteered no information and acted as though he knew that no one would dare ask for any.”
In this section we see how ruthless and single-minded Communism is, especially for Black America, whose specific issues are not great concerns for the Party. It would feel tempting to see this as a place to compare these events to current Leftist politics, but Wright is specifically suggesting that it is an absolutism, not liberalism that is the root of the problem, the desire for power as an end to itself, not an ideology to blame. His characters don’t suggest that Communism is a pure ideal either, but mostly a means.
Section 4: 310-500
“The seductions of vanity have lured countless men to destinies that have confounded them, left them straightened and undone. After an arduous journey of experience it is not good to stare in dismay at a world that one was creating without being aware of it, and there is no chastening of the spirit so severely sobering as that rankling sense of guilt that springs from a knowledge of having been snares into the mire of disillusionment when one thought that one was soaring on wings of intellectual pride to a freedom remote from the errors and frailties of the gullible. At times there comes into the lives of men realizations so paralyzing that, for the first time, their hands reach out fumblingly for the touch of another human being.”
Cross is a sociopath at times, but he is convinced of his emotional sense. I think more so in the novel he is portrayed like someone cornered into lashing out, and this includes, at some points, lashing out against censure, not just threats of life.
Section 5: 501-585
“Cross found himself in the uniquely ironic position of comprehending far more keenly than his captors the nature and meaning of the situation confronting him. Even while the care in which he sat huddled between the two detectives bore him toward the office of the District Attorney, he could anticipate the general methods and approach of the police. They had first to prove who he was. Well, let them; that was their business, not his…”
In this final section we and Cross are confronted by his masking and deception. But as the above passage suggests, being the outside and deceiving the insiders (of the Party, of Society) he has the keen observation post, and the intelligence to way in heavily of the various illusions he himself is not a party to.
As I finished the novel, like with other Richard Wright books, I am not sure what to make of it and have to work through my sense of its meaning, how it positions Black men (and women) in America. I am always a little horrified by my own confusions, but oh well, I guess that’s the point.