Technically, Three Days Before the Shooting is the unfinished second novel by Ralph Ellison. But calling the 1,136-plus—page tome that is a bit deceptive. Less an attempt to cull the final writings of a dead author into a single novel, the book, which Random House's Modern Library published in a small print run last week, has more the “quality of an encyclopedia,” in the view of co-editor John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor. Callahan, a professor of humanities at Lewis & Clark College, pulled the mammoth text together with Adam Bradley, also a professor.
Partially a compendium to the Ellison posthumous novel, Juneteenth (which Random House published in 1999 and which Callahan also edited), and partially a compilation of the writing Ellison did from the late 1950s to his death in 1994, Three Days Before the Shooting presents, interestingly but frustratingly, writings that do not cohere into a whole, as the editors explain in their introduction.
Instead of exerting a single narrative thrust to the various storylines, Three Days Before the Shooting aims to give the reader an unfettered view into Ellison's creative process. To an extent, Callahan said, a reader can arrange the disparate, but linked, texts as he or she chooses, supplemented, as they are, with editors' notes.
The germ for Three Days Before the Shooting, Callahan said, began when he was working on Juneteenth. In the course of pulling that novel together he realized the work Ellison left behind was more an archive than a single work. The idea to present that archive not in a library collection, but as a text for readers and scholars, has been in his head since he finished Juneteenth.
As the editors note in their introduction, Three Days Before the Shooting is a book that attempts to show Ellison at work while conveying the “paradox of his writing thousands of pages…yet never mastering many of the basic textual challenges presented by his material, not the least of which was…bringing his narrative to some kind of resolution.” In this sense, Three Days Before the Shooting is, more than anything else, the resolution of a work that is itself unresolved.