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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

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Review: Juneteenth

Juneteenth - Ralph Ellison

Sometimes the story about the story is much more interesting than the tale itself. Take for example the story of Ralph Ellison's second novel. Following his award-winning debut, Invisible Man, there was undoubtedly intense pressure on Ellison to triumph. Before he'd even finished Invisible Man in 1952, Ellison was working on his second novel. He hoped to create an intense and epic story, one he imagined would be a thousand pages, possibly split into three volumes. He worked on this second novel throughout much of the next decade. The contract with his publisher stipulated a completion date in 1967. Though he was behind, Ellison had much of the novel completed, but his manuscript was the victim of a house fire that same year. Some of the manuscript survived (perhaps Ellison had a copy or it was at a different location), but nearly four hundred pages had been destroyed. Immediately, Ellison set to work, trying to put the broken pieces back together. Decade after decade, he worked on his second novel, but he never finished the task. For whatever reason, Ellison was unable to recreate the work he'd once nearly finished.

By the time of his death in 1994, Ellison had amassed thousands of pages of the manuscript, notes, and various scraps of paper. Though a heavily daunting task, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to put these pieces together and posthumously publish Ellison's much anticipated second novel. The first attempt came in 1999, just five years after Ellison's death, with Juneteenth. Juneteenth encompasses the few hundred pages of Ellison's novel that were most intact. The second attempt, published in 2010, entitled Three Days Before the Shooting..., was intended to be a more complete work, borrowing from Ellison's notes, trying to build the novel that he'd intended to create.

As with any posthumous work, it's difficult to have an opinion about Juneteenth. In part, I did not want to read it as I hated to tarnish my strong feelings for Ellison's literary reputation. Yet, I was curious. Curious enough that I promised myself I would read both adaptations before the year's end.

Juneteenth is a meandering mess of stream of conciousness. While Ellison certainly dabbled with the form in Invisible Man, the influence of Faulkner and company saturate the pages of Juneteenth. It's difficult to follow. And yet, there's the possibility of so much brilliance beneath the confusing string of words. With a complete novel as Ellison intended, or tougher editing, perhaps the poetry and inventiveness of thought would've been abundantly clear. Unfortunately, as presented here, it's not. There are so many layers in this selection, and without the full picture, these layers add to the mess. It's never quite clear where Ellison intended to go with his creature and how it might have been orchestrated.

It's unfortunate that fire destroyed Ellison's novel, yet one has to wonder if Ellison wasn't privately struggling before the disastrous event. Surely, one can imagine a world where fire did not destroy the original manuscript, but the author still combated with self in his attempt to create perfection. Invisible Man may have been impossible to follow. Though I offer no rating for this posthumous work by an author I greatly admire, let it be known that I struggled greatly with this novel. It is not a pleasant or memorable read. Even so, I still intend to follow through with my promise to read Three Days Before the Shooting.... Given the extra time and resources, it's possible a hint of Ellison's intentions will be evident.