Book Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

In the beginning of The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, I found the book a bit off-putting.  The author drops the reader into the middle of a scene with no hand holds or explanations. Our protagonist is Lila Mae Watson, an elevator inspector in an unnamed city with lots of big buildings.  But Whitehead doesn’t introduce us to Lila Mae. We are set to look through her eyes and glean what we can as she arrives at a new site to ply her trade, first as she takes the opportunity to leaf through previous reports on this particular elevator, and then as she notes which inspectors signed off on them in the past.  We are then subjected to a list of these inspectors’ names, physical attributes, personality quirks: it all come rushing at us very fast. It’s disorienting, and quite frankly, I don’t think it was necessary.  Nonetheless, I persisted through these early chapters because Colson Whitehead is now the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Underground Railroad, a book that is both historical and brilliantly surreal.  The Intuitionist was Whitehead’s first novel.  One doesn’t expect a first novel to be without flaws, but I still trusted it would be fascinating—and I was not disappointed.

In the end, I loved this book.  In the end, I even cried, not because it was sad or sentimental, but because I so admired a young man who would risk writing something so nakedly idealistic.  I also confess I cried because for the first time in a long time, I really wanted to call my late friend Craig and read him the last few pages.  He would have loved it.

I must credit Craig for making me pick up this book in the first place.  Craig was a spiritual master, and the last time I saw him on the earthly plane, during a lull in the conversation, he said to me, “You need to follow your intuition more.”

This comment seemed to come out of left field.  “I do,” I said defensively.  “You know I trust my intuition.”

“Even more,” he said. “Even more.”

Those were my marching orders.  So when a book called The Intuitionist shows up in my Book Bub feed, you know I’m going to check it out.  So here I am, wondering if I should advise other spiritual seekers to dive in.  Well, I’m going to duck and say, I dunno!  This book is not an easy read.  Judging by Amazon reviews, it left a lot of people scratching their heads. Some didn’t know if it was set in the past or in some sci fi future or even on some distant planet.  One confessed, “I didn’t know why I was reading about elevator inspectors.”  Well, let me venture to provide a bit of clarity.

The novel seems to take place in a post WWII city when men wore hats with their suits and women wore skirts and would never dream of leaving the house wearing a pair of slacks. And oh, yes, African Americans were called “colored.”  I’m guessing this was as polite at that time as the word “Negro” was in the 60s when I was a girl.  Our tour guide in this era is the aforementioned Lila Mae Watson, the first female colored elevator inspector in the Department of Elevator Inspection. In this surreal, yet realistic fictional world, elevator inspectors, their conflicting philosophies, and their prickly politics are as topical as anything you’re likely to hear on CNN today. Old School inspectors espouse a philosophy called Empiricism, a technique that requires direct viewing and manual manipulation of the hidden workings of the elevator.  Seems reasonable.  But the New Guard, like Lila Mae, are relying on Intuitionism, a discipline akin to meditation, where the inspector takes a silent ride, feels the vibrations, and just knows.  Yeah, right. Even I—whose spiritual mentor urges more reliance on intuition—even I know which theoretician I’d like inspecting the brakes on my elevator!  But guess what?  In this world the Intuitionists have the better safety records, and the Intuitionist candidate for Guild President is gaining on the Empiricist incumbent in the polls.

Then, only a few pages in, to further interest or confuse us, comes the inciting event:  a new elevator, recently inspected by Intuitionist Lila Mae, has crashed in a multi-story freefall, bringing hard scrutiny on Lila Mae’s own competence, as well as the veracity of the Intuitionist School of Thought.  Was sabotage at play here?  Were the Empiricist bosses, their mob backers and corporate lackeys setting up the first female colored inspector to be the scapegoat?  Are the Intuitionists protecting Lila Mae or using her vulnerability for their own ends?  If you’re a fan of hard-boiled noir intrigue (I’m not), then you might enjoy what follows. It only got interesting for me (spoiler coming) when Lila Mae discovers that (here it comes) the late Dr. James Fulton, the genius author and professor behind the Intuitionist School of Elevator Inspection was (NOW!) a light-skinned black man passing for white. This new piece of information opens Lila Mae’s eyes and she’s able to understand Fulton’s writings on a deeper level.

Warning:  more spoilers coming. . .

This is when it becomes clear why Whitehead cast elevator operators in the starring roles in his mythology.  The invention of the elevator in the mid 19thcentury quickly facilitated the construction of buildings taller than anyone had imagined possible, leading to bigger cities.  Lila Mae finds in Fulton’s final unpublished text book the prophecy of new cities on the horizon, thanks to the coming development of a perfect elevator that will precipitate a “second elevation,” an optimistic future, a time when African Americans will be able to create a unique vision in their own image.   My favorite line, the one I want to share with Craig, comes when Lila Mae realizes that the arguments between the two schools of elevator inspection are meaningless:  “. . .their petty squabbling feeds the new thing that is coming. In its own way, it prepares them.”

This is the notion that brought tears to my eyes because in our present predicament, in this Trumpian age, all I can say is, “Amen.  Bring it on!”





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