Anchor Books / Bantam Doubleday Dell
US Hardcover First
Publication Date: 12-29-1998
259 Pages; $19.99
Date Reviewed: 10-23-03
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003
There is always another world. While we live in the present, our present, we yearn for another place and time, either in the future or the past, perhaps somehow in both. Words will define a world, but they can also unfurl a world, free it from the specificities that confine it to a certain time and place. Once the world is freed from the specific, a writer's imagination of that world, a writer's definition of that world, can live in the small details that are common to all worlds. Those small details can evoke the currents of power and privilege that move all men and women. Colson Whitehead creates a confined world of elevator inspectors in an unnamed city that is surely New York, then frees the world with the experience of 'The Intuitionist', the first black woman to join their ranks. Lila Mae Watson is complex, memorable, often frustrating. But she's never wrong.
Two warring factions exist within the Department of Elevator Inspectors. The Empiricists are rational, by-the-book inspectors, who carefully check each gear, pulley and brake to ensure that vertical travel is safe in the city. Intuitionists simply step in an elevator and know if something is wrong. Lila Mae is the most accurate of the latter faction, but it's an elevator that she inspected that goes into free-fall, embarrassing and potentially endangering the mayor. Pursued by both factions, this careful, almost prissy woman goes off the rails in a very controlled manner to find out who sabotaged the elevator and why. It must be sabotage because Lila Mae is never wrong.
Whitehead has a complex agenda with this first novel. He never names the city in which it takes place, but gives enough evidence for the reader to know that it's New York. This deliberate anonymity gives the novel a sort of surreal feeling, as does the indeterminate time setting. Whitehead writes passionately and often disturbingly about racism, and the prices paid by those who must first pioneer the entry into a new social milieu, be it a social or professional group. He's also very funny, with the sort of savage, underplayed humor that one finds in the work of Franz Kafka. In one segment, he speaks of an elevator company that has learned to use "the dark power of the bikini" to sell its products.
Whitehead infuses his novel with elements of the fantastic, from the sense of anonymity to the powers of Lila Mae's intuition. Whitehead's description of her ability to read an elevator is straight out of Philip K. Dick or Stephen King, but Whitehead grounds it in the minutia of elevator technology. This technology plays a big part in 'The Intuitionist'. Whitehead details the apocrypha and legends of a profession so small one would think them to barely exist, and yet he finds a world of information and humanity within. His fascination with documentation and lost papers is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges and Stanislaw Lem. As an Intuitionist, Lila is the heir to the work and papers of one James Fulton, who founded the guild of Intuitionists. She's also the pawn of their current leaders, and the leaders of the Empiricists, who are working hand-in-hand with the mob to control the elevator business in the city. Though she's an Intuitionist, she finds herself seeking an ephemeral, empirical truth that lies outside the documentation, outside the guilds, outside the department, outside the world as she knows it.
To tell his story, Whitehead jumps about with complete abandon, which may confuse some readers. The novel often reads like a patchwork journal, with bits of news coverage pasted in amidst the very personal recollections of its heroine. Lila Mae herself is complex and confused, shuttling back and forth between memories and the present, between the truths she must face and the lies she must tell herself to keep going. Some readers will respond to this with great enthusiasm, while others will merely scratch their heads. Whitehead's meta-fictional forays were for this reader some of the most entertaining passages of the book, and his convoluted style serves them well, though it detracts from the narrative drive.
Whitehead has a fascinating story of perception and race, of groups and the individual to spin out in 'The Intuitionist'. Beliefs based on documentation, on perception, on writing and on tradition are de-constructed as easily as those based on emotion and opinion. Whitehead's observations about race are low key but fueled by the kind of rage that shelves Kafka's writing under humor. Whitehead's sense of humor is an under-cutting sense of unreality, where jokes become reality and reality is clearly a joke. The most distressing, horrific scene in the novel is a humor routine played out for the starched white audience of elevator inspectors.
Whitehead's novel is neither fish nor fowl. While it has strong echoes of genre fiction, it is clearly not genre fiction, and might alienate a fair proportion of the genre-fiction audience with its convoluted plot and chronology. But it's also a little too funny and too surreal to sit comfortably with the strictly literary readers. His humor is very straight-laced, so much so that many will think he's being serious when he's at his most outrageous. Whitehead is writing unclassifiable literature that's truly original. 'The Intuitionist', poignant and pointed, is literature from another time, from another world, a world that may never exist or have existed. One of the reasons that there are always other worlds is that writers such as Whitehead are able to conjure them from words alone.