Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist

Whitehead, Colson (2000), The Intuitionist, Anchor
ISBN 0-385-49300-2

I may be experiencing a streak of luck lately with books I read for fun, but this right here is another excellent novel. It’s Colson Whitehead’s debut, published in 1999.Whitehead has since published two other novels to general praise and won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, and reading “The Intuitionist” it’s easy to see why. It is a very well-written, completely original novel about racism and elevators. It’s not perfect but it need not be. “The Intuitionist” is very good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It makes use of a fascinating kind of allegory: the protagonist is an Elevator Inspector, and the story is set in the Elevator inspector milieu, in a society which roughly corresponds to 1950s America, I think, featuring scenes at Elevator college seminars, in Elevator libraries, at Elevator inspector conventions, not to forget that Elevator inspecting gets done now and then and quite a bit of Elevator theory is relayed to us,including something that is most certainly a kind of Elevator deconstruction. The Derrida of Elevators is called Fuller, and although he’s been dead a while, he has an important part to play. I wager there isn’t a Derrida in actual Elevator inspecting practice. Although Elevator inspectors certainly do exist, it is not an academic profession, and I certainly doubt the existence of Elevator inspecting theory. Elevators provide an extraordinarily original allegory for a whole category of class concerns, but there is a danger. Racism and topics like that can be perceived as ‘dirty’, unpleasant, but clothing them in a clean allegory may help your rhetoric but it often reduces the inherent urgency of a topic like this. Colson Whitehead is smart enough to recognize that.

On top of this ingenious construction, he has crafted a suspenseful thriller. The plot is wonderfully complex and, true to its genre, only unravels slowly, as the protagonist finds out about intrigues and secrets hidden in every nook of the Elevator inspecting milieu. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black woman to become Elevator inspector. Inspector Watson. As someone who, in the center of power, is relegated to the peripheries, she is made to be the fall guy in what at first appears to be a union dispute. Two factions fight for the leadership of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and as elections approach, they will use any means necessary to secure an advantage. A pair of elevators recently inspected by Watson suddenly free-fall and crash. Although nobody has been harmed, this is a terrible accident that makes headlines and puts Watson’s faction at a disadvantage. In an effort to clear her name, Watson follows up on different shady leads, has a run-in with the mob, reveals a few secrets and falls in with a bad guy. The book, as far as genre is concerned, is a cross between the bookish thrillers of Dan Brown or Elizabeth Kostova and the detective novels of Chandler, but it is, of course, far more than that.

To understand the way the allegory is weaved into the novel, I think this passage, early in thew book, is significant:

For the first time it occurs to Lila Mae that someone might have been hurt. “That’s impossible. Total freefall is a physical impossibility.” She shakes her head.
“That’s what happened,” Chuck reaffirms. He’s still looking up at the ceiling. They can hear some of their colleagues whooping outside the door. “Forty floors.”
“Which one?”
“Number Eleven, I think.”
She remembers Number Eleven distinctly. A little shy, but that’s normal in a new cab. “The entire stack is outfitted with the new Arbo antilocks,” Lila Mae argues. “Plus the standard reg gear. I inspected them myself.”
“Did you check them,” Chuck asks tentatively, “or did you intuit them?”
Lila Mae ignores the slur. “I did my job,” she says.

In this innocuous passage several important references are hidden. Arbo is an elevator manufacturer, one of the two giants of the trade. The other is called United. The important reference, however, can be found in the dichotomy between “check” and “intuit”: the two aforementioned factions fundamentally differ in their approach to elevators. One of the factions prefers a hands-on approach, to look at the wiring and the mechanical parts of the elevator to check it. They are called the Empiricists and the current Chairman of the Department of Elevators is an Empiricist. The others intuit, they feel the Elevator, they try to sunder elevators and elevator-ness. They are called Intuitionists, and Fuller, the Derrida of elevator theory, is the founding father of that discipline. Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist, of course. Interestingly, one of the premises of the novel is that this approach, mad as it may sound, actually works. In fact, the Intuitionists can boast better results and Lila Mae Watson is the best of them all.

The fact that the narrator calls Chuck’s reference to Intuitionism a slur, when it could also be read as a factual question, since, after all, it’s what Watson actually did, points to the fact that it is actually the precarious balance between these two ways of reading Chuck’s words that defines many conflicts in the book. It is not surprising that Lila Mae Watson, the woman on the margins, chooses this discipline. And a secret, not revealed until late in the novel, about the founder of Intuitionism, further expounds upon that intricacy. Empiricism is more than the received and dominant doctrine. It is also the ideology of the dominant power paradigm, reflecting the society’s axiomatic values. So, in a black-and-white reading, Empiricism (as defined in the novel) is white, male, commonsensical, anti-intellectual bullshit. This is reinforced by passages like the following:

See, the Empiricists stoop to check for tell-tale striations on the lift winch and seize upon oxidation scars on the compensating rope sheave, all that muscle work, and think the Intuitionists get off easy. Lazy slobs.
Some nicknames Empiricists habe for their renegade collegues: swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis.

One of many strengths of this novel, however, is that such a reading, tethered solely to those in power, does an injustice to the actual intricacies. Watson is the only black Intuitionist, and her guild turns out not to have clean hands, either. For one thing, the novel reflects upon the intricacies of center and periphery, not opting for the easy way out. Pompey, the first black inspector, attacks Watson two thirds into the book:

This is a white man’s world. They make the rules. You come along, strutting like you own the place. Like they don’t own you. But they do. […] I was the first one in the Department. I was the first colored elevator inspector in history. In history! And you will never, ever know what the hell they put me through. You think you have it bad? You have no idea. […] You had it easy, snot-nose kid that you are, because of me. Because of what I did for you.

Problems of identity play a central role in the novel, questions of blackness (Whitehead has clearly read Aimé Cesaire) for example and questions of class, inasmuch as income, erudition and related issues are concerned. The extent to which corporate America was inimical to the young black men and women, to which it has pitted one isolated African American against another, to which it has silenced black voices to better hear the white screech.

Now here’s where the academic dispute becomes salient. It’s clearly intended as a satire on the academic world. In chapters that sketch Watson’s professional career, we are availed of large batches of elevator theory and we are clearly not supposed to take any of that seriously. In fact, as we will find out later, some central textbooks were expressly written as a joke. Personally, however, I think this is not just satire. Communication is a central issue in the novel: I think an especially important reference here is Henry Louis Gates jr.’s theory of the Signifying Monkey. Gates’ theory rests upon the assumption that African Americans have a way of communicating which is all their own, which creates a nonviolent way of coping with oppression and the oppressor, of opening a channel of communication among the silenced. In “The Intuitionist”, all the black characters ‘signify’, in Gates’ understanding of the term; in fact, Intuitionism is, partly at least, most certainly the practice of reading and concentrating upon a subtext in order to order one’s understanding of the whole. All this is wrapped in a light package.

This book is very easy to read and it is enjoyable on a very basic aesthetic level. The language is certainly rich and assured, although, as is expected of a debut novel, it hits a few shrill notes now and then. As I said before, Whitehead manages the genres he’s using very well: it is a suspenseful thriller, until the ending, which is a disappointment but not necessarily because of Whitehead’s ineptitude. On the contrary, I think Whitehead is slowing the book down deliberately at the end, to let his points sink in. He is clearly not interested in letting the reader breeze, untouched by his thinking, through a thriller set in a strange elevator world. He wants, no, he makes us understand what we have been served. And one of the last points we are made to understand is that it is no surreal fantasy world, after all: “The Intuitionist” presents a world that is almost a mirror to ours, a city that is like ours, just with elevator theory. It’s Gotham City, with elevators.

We are never told which city the City actually is, but like Gotham, we are pretty sure the city in question is supposed to be a distorted version of New York. And so, last but not least, “The Intuitionist” can be read as an ode to New York, since, among other things, the City is described as the one which the whole world looks to where elevators are concerned. It is a precarious city, and New York is a precarious city, the city of integration, but also a city of race riots, a city of chances and death traps. When Watson, after the underwhelming finale, decides to start anew, she stays in New York and we accept this: where else would she go, but to Gotham City? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. “The Intuitionist” shows us a society that is under a heavy strain by racial and class conflicts, that is on the brink of eruption, with the tired, poor, huddled masses leading this revolt; and it shows us a way out, not the way of assimilation, but the way of intuition, of communication, of finding a voice, and hearing the muffled voice behind the thick metal doors.

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3 thoughts on “Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist

  1. Marcel – thank you for this beautifully written review. I’m putting it on my TBR list. Did you say you /published/ this book?

  2. um. no. my deficiencies in English may have tripped me up here. does the first sentence suggest this?

    edit: have changed the first sentence.

  3. Pingback: Recently finished books? - Page 72 - World Literature Forum

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