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The intuitionistby Colson Whitehead
Synopses & Reviews
Lila Mae Watson is the first black female Elevator Inspector in the history of the Department. She is an Intuitionist, able to intuit defects purely by tuning in to the machinery. The opposition, the Empiricists, practice dutiful and routine physical inspection.
When a new elevator on Lila Mae's rounds goes into total freefall, her solitary existence is shattered. Sabotage is the obvious explanation: it's election year in the Elevator Guild and the Empiricists would love nothing better than to bring down an Intuitionist, and a coloured one at that. Lila Mae is never wrong.
As Lila Mae tries to uncover the truth, she is sucked into a violent whirlpool of conspiracy and deceit. The fight is on to recover the formula for the perfect elevator: the 'black box' that could radically reinvent the city.
Fusing the classic elements of the noir thriller with serious racial, political and philosophical questions, The Intuitionist is a groundbreaking and marvelously inventive novel. Moving, stylish and darkly funny, it introduces a remarkably accomplished young writer.
"The Intuitionist is the story of a love affair with the steel and stone, machinery and architecture of the city. It's not a pretty love, but a working-class passion for the stench of humanity that its heroine, Lila Mae Watson, has made her own. But as always with love there is betrayal. This extraordinary novel is the first voice in a powerful chorus to come." Walter Mosley
"This splendid novel reads as though a stray line in Pynchon or Millhauser had been meticulously unfolded to reveal an entire world, one of spooky, stylish alternate-Americana, as rich and haunted as our own. The care and confidence of the prose, the visionary metaphor beating like a heart at the center — these do not outweigh the poignance and humor, the human presence here. The Intuitionist rises someplace new, and very special." Jonathan Lethem
"A dizzyingly-high-concept debut of genuine originality, despite its indebtedness to a specific source, ironically echoes and amusingly inverts Ralph Ellison's classic Invisible Man. In a deftly plotted mystery and quest tale that's also a teasing intellectual adventure, Whitehead traces the continuing education of Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport and thus first of her race and gender to be employed by the Department of Elevator Inspectors....Whitehead skillfully orchestrates these noirish particulars together with an enormity of technical-mechanical detail and resonant meditations on social and racial issues, bringing all into a many-leveled narrative equally effective as detective story and philosophical novel. Ralph Ellison would be proud." Kirkus Reviews
"Brilliant, funny, poetic...a complex mix of contemporary issues and the urban imagery of 40 years ago...The style [Whitehead] creates to portray this world is equally intricate and rich a supple, jazzy instrument that can swing from deadpan satirical fantasy to a straight-ahead portrayal of the pain and stoicism of black people living in a ham-fisted white world, looking for the ultimate elevator that will take them up and out." Utne Reader
Lila Mae Watson would prefer to be as useful and unnoticed as the elevators she inspects, and often, as a "colored" woman in a city something like 1960 New York, she is. But as the second black, and the only woman, in the Elevator Guild, an organization as powerful and as laced with corruption as the big unions of the real New York, she just doesn't fit in. To make matters worse, she's an Intuitionist an elevator inspector who locates the defects in a machine not by examining its workings, but by closing her eyes and "communicating with the elevator on a non-material basis."
In the alternate New York of Colson Whitehead's gritty, brainy first novel, The Intuitionist, the elevator inspectors union is split into two factions. The upstart Intuitionists have their own candidate for Guild chair, and are intent on ousting the current chair, leader of the nuts-and-bolts Empiricists. When a brand-new elevator on Lila Mae's beat suddenly and inexplicably plummets 40 floors suffering a supposedly impossible "total freefall" Lila Mae gets dragged into the election year battle, and soon she's chasing after the lost notebooks of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton. Rumor has it that Fulton, author of the classic text Theoretical Elevators, had designed the perfect elevator, then hid his blueprints just before his death. Such a device would remake the topography of the city as radically as Otis' first lift, bringing on "the second elevation" and upsetting the Guild's delicate balance of powers.
One of the vexing side effects of reading a work of fiction as fresh as the The Intuitionist is a tendency to talk influences (in this case, Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon by way of Walter Mosley). But what's most winning about Whitehead's novel is the way he combines flights of imagination and absurdity (Lila Mae's gruelingly intensive studies at the Institute for Vertical Transport) with keen observation (how easily she can hide in the midst of a drunken gathering of her co-workers she simply dons a maid's uniform and becomes invisible to them). Several scenes in The Intuitionist read like parodies, as when the child Lila Mae finds her father poring with boozy reverence over an elevator catalog in the middle of the night; her dad couldn't break the color barrier to become an inspector, but damned if his frustration doesn't become his daughter's determination to win that badge. Or when Whitehead depicts Intuitionist students discussing such philosophical matters as "the vertical imperative" and "The Dilemma of the Phantom Passenger," which asks "where the elevator is when it is not in service."
But for every laugh provoked by making the prosaic elevator the inspiration for melodramatic and high-minded musings, The Intuitionist offers passages of sardonic, unvarnished realism. Lila Mae's alienated journey through the Guild's old-school world of paunchy white men in regulation haircuts feels bruisingly convincing. And if the lofty metaphysics of Intuitionist theory sometimes wax silly, Whitehead's heroine never does. Smart, independent, lonely and proud, Lila Mae clings to Fulton's promise that "there is another world beyond this one," and to her own faith in the possibility of transcending the ugly struggle between the races. When Fulton turns out to have hidden more than just blueprints, she finds that faith profoundly challenged.
Whitehead doesn't just travel back and forth between irony and sincerity, between the naturalistic novel of race and the imaginative novel of ideas he simply occupies all territories at the same time. The boundaries separating those categories, which usually seem insuperable, fall away, like the walls, floor and ceiling shed by the passenger in Fulton's perfect elevator as it shoots past the 50th floor and into a state of pure vertical motion. After that, as Fulton puts it, "There is only the ride."
"Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, but... Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors." Gary Krist, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Colson Whitehead was born in New York City in 1969. His journalism has appeared in Vibe, Spin, Newsday, and The Village Voice, where he was a television columnist. A graduate of Harvard College, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
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