Ellison's Wonderland

Culture and technology.
June 5 1999 3:30 AM

Ellison's Wonderland

A curious masterpiece finally arrives.

Juneteenth
By Ralph Ellison
Edited by John F. Callahan
Random House, 368 pages, $25

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Why didn't Ellison finish--or publish--the book? The oft-repeated official version involves a fire that destroyed an important manuscript in 1966. But as disastrous an event as that must have been, I find it unconvincing as an explanation. Ellison described losing a summer's worth of work. He had a decade of writing his novel behind him and almost three more ahead of him. A more compelling explanation is that Ellison wanted to write a second novel that would meet the standard of Invisible Man while being an entirely different kind of book. This strenuous ambition was confounded by a perfectionism that, as Ellison wrote in the introduction to his volume of essays Shadow and Act, made it somewhat "unreal" to even think of himself as a writer. As he puts it, "my standards were impossibly high."

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Those standards didn't keep Ellison from writing, merely from calling it quits. Failing to finish doesn't mean he failed. Indeed, a great, unfinished work can be more fascinating than a finished one because of the way the reader is drawn into the artistic process. Juneteenth is a truly interactive novel, in which readers are not an audience but collaborators, trying to pull together strands and elements of a story that has no final resolution. Other fragments and versions will add to what Callahan has assembled, not overwrite it. As with Faulkner, the boundaries of Ellison's separate texts may blur, but the mythic force of the buried story and the stylistic virtuosity of its telling will remain.