Exhibit 8.8

The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead’s novel is about race. And elevators. Actually, mostly elevators. Which are, presumably, a metaphor for racial progress. So it’s still about race. But elevators, too.

The city is never named, nor is the year given, but it is more or less an alternate version of pre-Civil Rights era New York where elevators have allowed the city to achieve a lasting and modern verticality (notably to Lila Mae, the city’s first black, female elevator inspector, mankind has achieved this technological advancement far faster than its achieved any commitment to equality). For whatever reason, elevator inspectors are an essential cog in public service, the equivalent of police and firemen not just in their duties but in their cronyism, corruption, and insider fraternity. Lila Mae isn’t liked, not just because of her race and gender, but because she is an Intuitionist–a kind of elevator inspector who intuits problems without a physical examination of the elevator–who are opposed by the Empiricists, traditional elevator inspectors who hold power in the profession’s guild.

There’s an election coming up for the elevator guild presidency that, for the first time, an Intuitionist might win. An elevator crashes. It’s one Lila Mae has inspected. She’s a high profile Intuitionist so it’s not unreasonable to assume it’s been done to influence the election. But why? But who? But elevators?

If it sounds silly–and it probably sounds silly–it’s also remarkably brilliant. At no point does Whitehead take his subject anything less than absolutely seriously. In this world, journals are filled the minutiae of elevator repair, new elevator models are introduced to great fanfare and publicity, and who wins the elevator guild election dominates the media. That’s just how it is, and that commitment makes for a powerful allegory. Even rhapsodizing by the founder of Intuitionism on the coming age of ‘second elevation’ works for both the plot and the purpose and only at the end does Whitehead’s book strain to contain its message underneath its genre construction.

You see, it’s a mystery. To keep her job, Lila Mae needs to discover who set up the elevator crash, but she quickly realizes she can’t trust anyone, even her fellow Intuitionists. Her isolation can’t be separated from her race and gender and both ultimately play an essential role in the plot. The allegory is too powerful to ignored, but it wouldn’t be fair to the book to stop one’s reading there. It’s a really gripping plot, elevators and all, and it doesn’t hurt that Whitehead is an incredible prose stylist.

He’s that good, capable of long passages of rhapsodizing over his intricate world while still keeping things moving. He’s the rare writer capable of adapting his prose to fit the action of the book, and he does it almost sentence by sentence without it ever fracturing or feeling disjointed. I’ve been lucky to read a lot of good books recently, but I’m not sure if any were exactly what I wanted to read in the way The Intuitionist was. I want to read more novels like this one. I want to read more Colson Whitehead.

Maybe I should say that I don’t know if it ended particularly well. Or at least it ended abruptly with some threads resolved better than others. Or maybe I was just sad it was over.

You can check out the first chapter here. I think you should.

2 Comments / Posted in Books, Elevators, Fiction


  1. Heather says:

    It sounds amazing.

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