Characters, Nathalie Sarraute maintained, are props. They exist. They react to external stimuli like "sunflowers twisting toward a light source," and they "force us to recognize people from the inside." She came after "the investigative methods of Dostoyevsky," after Kafka (his "legitimate heir"), and after Proust's limitless "mental universe." She came after Woolf's and Joyce's interior monologues, their privileging of interior subjectivity over objective external "reality." She absorbed these influences and developed a different kind of stream-of-consciousness. Let's call it: streams-of-subconsciousness? Streams, plural, for her singular narrators "made up of infinite facets." And subconsciousness, because they describe gut feelings, the indescribable emotions that come and go too quickly, fleetingly, elusively. So she made new the modernists' new . . . and the Nouveau Roman was born.
These are the final lines of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man:
"Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
When I read them, I couldn't close the book. I read them again. And I read them again, aloud. Do you hear? The insistence of his steady-as-a-heartbeat rhyme: Do. Through. You.
"That last statement doesn't seem just right, does it?" he asks in the prologue: "But it is; you hear this music simply because music is heard and seldom seen, except by musicians. Could this compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music of invisibility?" Immediately, he backtracks: "But I am an orator, a rabble-rouser -- Am? I was, and perhaps shall be again. Who knows?" (13)
Who knows, he wonders.
You, perhaps? You are the reader, after all. And by the end of the book you do know, in fact, that he is again a rabble-rousing orator, and why:
"Because in spite of myself I've learned some things. Without the possibility of action, all knowledge comes to one labeled 'file and forget,' and I can neither file nor forget. Nor will certain ideas forget me; they keep filing away at my lethargy, my complacency. Why should I be the one to dream this nightmare? Why should I be dedicated and set aside -- yes, if not to at least tell a few people about it?" (570)
Like Dostoyevsky's Underground Man before him, the Invisible Man recalls for us how a stranger on the street rudely bumped into him. The Underground Man, physically picked up and moved out of the way by his stranger, recalls the incident incredulously. The Invisible Man, on the other hand, head-butts and beats his stranger, stopping just short of killing him but only because he realizes the man hadn't even seen him. Invisible and underground when the novel begins, he calls himself "Jack-the-bear," for he is in hibernation, a state of being he defines as "a covert preparation for a more overt action" (13).
"But that's getting too far ahead of the story, almost to the end," he tells us, "although the end is in the beginning and lies far ahead" (5). And at the end, he reminds us: "The end was in the beginning" (562). And at the beginning, he warns us: "Beware of those who speak of the spiral of history; they are preparing a boomerang" (6). And at the end of the beginning, he pleads, "Bear with me" (14). But will you? Bear with him? Jack-the-bear with him? Be patient with him? Listen to him? Prepare for action with him? Stand with him, with arms or arm-in-arm with him? Do you see him? His visibility? His invisibility? That he matters?