With his debut novel, Colson Whitehead follows in the admirable and envy-inducing tradition of taking a subject of interest and creating a whole damn world around it. Whitehead’s topic is, broadly, elevators, and, more specifically, elevator maintenance. He creates a world where elevators aren’t just a convenient mode of transportation that we take for granted until the one we are on stalls for half a second and our entire life flashes before our eyes. No, in the world of The Intuitionist, the creation of elevators in placed comparably next to cars, and the people in charge of making them work are treated with the type of respect architects receive. And Whitehead embraces his story world concept with so much passion and invention that as I ride the elevator to and from my office each day I find my thoughts shifting from what meal I’ll eat next to being aware of just how incredible that box of machinery I’m riding truly is.
The story is set in “The City,” which feels like a slightly alternate-universe version of New York City, this feeling backed up by the fact that Whitehead was born and raised in NYC. The protagonist is Lila Mae Watson, she is the first ever black woman to be hired by the Department of Vertical Transportation, and the second ever black person. She is also an Intuitonist. The elevator inspection industry is made up of two semi-official groups, the Intuitionists and the Empiricists. The Intuitionists inspect elevators through intuition, riding in them and falling into a sort of trance where the inner workings and machinations wash over them like a vision. Meanwhile, as I’m sure you can guess, the Empiricists are the good ole’ by the book types, inspecting the nuts and bolts of the elevators and being inflexible to any variations in the methods.
The book opens with an elevator failure occurring at a high-profile building. Watson was the inspector of the elevator in question. To make matters worse, the President of the Elevator Guild, Frank Chancre, was preparing to give the Mayor an honorary ride on the elevator moments before it crashed. A media storm ensues. The building was brand new, a prestige project by the city that they named after a black woman activist. Chancre, an old school Empiricist, is running for re-election against an Intuitionist rival. All fingers point to Watson being at fault, but she has never made a mistake before and knows she didn’t make one now.
A deliciously convoluted conspiracy results. Watson finds herself as the center of interest for the Intuitonist/Empiricist political battle: Chancre wants her to take the fall for the accident in exchange for career benefits; and the Intuitionist group that believes she is being framed to distract from a political bombshell they have in the works. Watson, who as an intelligent black woman in this pseudo-1950s universe, has been an outsider her entire life, is suspicious of all the sudden attention, and decides to look for answers on her own.
The only person she remains loyal to is James Fulton, the deceased creator of the Intuitionist philosophy. Whitehead takes his time bringing Fulton’s mythology to the center of the story, initially focusing on the political squabbles to reveal the intricate if rather stuffy backstory which ultimately feels to the story’s detriment. But it’s with the brilliantly outrageous twist surrounding Fulton, and his mysterious “black box” where Whitehead is able to go in the colorful and playful directions you feel he had wanted to from the start.
The two major works that critics pinpointed to compare The Intuitionist to were Invisible Man and The Crying of Lot 49. The former I can see in the broad strokes, in its portrayal of the insidiousness of racism in every facet of American life, both in backwoods towns and the cities that supposedly represent the peak of progress. But while Invisible Man embraced the nightmare reality of Kafka, The Intuitionist treats racism as an intricate conspiracy that ultimately ensnares everyone into either complicity or docility. It’s a concept that would make Thomas Pynchon proud. And what Whitehead achieves with his alternate universe of elevators as the vessels to rapture is on the same scale as Crying of Lot 49‘s mail distribution rivalry as the underlying current of human history.
My main complaint with the book is a greedy wish that Whitehead would have gone further with the implications and possibilities of the “black box.” The book stays grounded for too long when it should have followed the ambitions of Fulton and aimed for the sky.