20 Books of Summer: Book 6
The winner in the Most Unique Book of the Summer (so far) category is Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. (There’s no prize, of course, unless you count this review.) I’d be lying if I said I understood every word/reference/theme of this book. The Intuitionist is deeply strange with glimmers of Pynchon, but Whitehead is cleverer and more entertaining. I’ve borrowed the Goodreads blurb because it’s hard to summarize a book that’s [mystery] + [philosophical treatise on elevator maintenance] + [noir thriller] +[social commentary] + [???].
Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.
When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial “Intuitionist” method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.
As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae’s quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent.
The premise is silly at first because it’s hard to see how Intuitionism ever gained traction. If I owned a building and had a choice between two elevator inspectors, I wouldn’t pick the one who stood in the elevator and had feelings about its mechanical fitness. Amid my chuckling, though, the story won me over. It’s not really about the elevators, of course. Whitehead peppers the book with oddball trivia and a nuanced look at a world where the schools for elevator maintenance spend as much time on philosophy as mechanics.
Each detail is carefully considered, right down to the screwdrivers, the only tool needed by an Intuitionist:
For the new screwdrivers were quite beautiful. Ever since the city granted license to the Department, bulky and ungainly screwdrivers had poked and bulged in the jacket pockets of the elevator inspectors, completely ruining any attempts at dapperness and savoir faire. It’s difficult to look official and imposing while listing to one side. The new screwdrivers have mother-of-pearl handles and heads the exact width of an inspection-plate screw. They fold out like jackknives and lend themselves to baroque fantasies about spies and secret missions. (13)
Secret missions to save elevators? And yet, this book makes that tangible. The Intuitionist is so unique in both subject and tone that the only writer that comes to mind for comparison is Thomas Pynchon, or maybe Michael Chabon. For the record, I don’t enjoy Pynchon or Chabon and rarely finish their books. Both writers excel with witty one-liners, but punctuate them with long tangents and asides that almost remove you from the story. At times, The Intuitionist wanders a bit far for the sake of an interesting image or clever point, but Colson always pulls the story back on track—something Pynchon and Chabon struggle to do.
It helps that there’s a mystery and quest to keep the story moving on a linear track—the quest for the perfect elevator:
“If we have decided that elevator studies—nuts and bolts Empiricism—imagined elevators from a human, and therefore inherently alien, point of view, wouldn’t the next logical step, after we’ve adopted the Intuitionist perspective, be to build an elevator the right way? With what we’ve learned?”
“Construct an elevator from the elevator’s point of view?”
“Wouldn’t that be the perfect elevator? Wouldn’t that be the black box?” (62-63)
There’s a lot of social commentary built around this, primarily on U.S. race relations. As Lila Mae is the first black female elevator inspector, she’s mocked and underestimated by her peers. I like books with social commentary, but I like them best when the social commentary doesn’t come at the expense of the plot and surface characters. With elevators as a base layer, I was nervous when picking up the book—you can’t assume an elevator-based plot will be convincing or interesting.
This review is vague, but I’d rather keep it that way given how many of the story’s twists and details surprised me. At times, I wanted the writing to tighten up, but many passages were beautifully or cleverly written and I didn’t resent the time spent away from the main story. Some sidebars about elevator maintenance were confusing at first; I couldn’t see how they fit into the story, but reading about Lila Mae’s studies and work ethic defined her character. She’s smart and competent and she legitimizes the story when it starts to get weird. If anyone can intuit an elevator’s fitness by riding in it, it’s Lila Mae.
I picked up this book because I wanted to read The Underground Railroad but don’t like finding an author via their latest book. The Intuitionist was Whitehead’s first book. I look forward to reading his others and seeing him develop as a writer.
Overall: 4.7 Sometimes the pretty writing threatened to wander too far afield, but the story was otherwise tight and often fun, despite a few dark turns. The level of detail devoted to the development of elevator philosophy contained excellent world building. The social commentary was insightful and poignant.
Translation: Read it.
14 to go! with some amendments…
Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology has replaced Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein has replaced Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell has snagged the TBD slot. Warning: The Sleep Donation review may be a rant—it’s coming in with a 1.5 and there hasn’t been a 1.5 on this site since The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.