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Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist

This may be the best US novel of the latter part of the twentieth century. Its subject – elevator inspection – is thoroughly unpromising but Whitehead has made it into a brilliant novel on racism and sexism, on philosophical differences and on how people think as well as a great novel which will keep you guessing till the end.

I’ll come to the racism and sexism in a bit. First of all, one of Whitehead’s achievements is to give us a time and setting that looks all too familiar but, somehow (and disturbingly) isn’t. This is not unique (think Kazuo Ishiguro) but it is well done. The setting here is clearly New York, though it is not named. Whitehead is a New Yorker. The city is called the largest in the world and is in the North-East of the country (also not named). It has a subway system and skyscrapers. However, the streets and buildings named are all fictitious. There is no mention whatsoever of any of the city’s famous (or even less famous) landmarks, streets, buildings or areas. No date is given but we can guess around 1960. Lila Mae Watson, our heroine, is the first African-American female elevator inspector (though Whitehead and the characters all use the term colored, rather than African-American or any other term). She grew up in the South, where they had segregated cinemas. Mention is made of a famous African-American preacher down South who is obviously Martin Luther King. However, other clues are conspicuously missing. This must be the first US 20th century novel that I have read written by a man which makes no reference whatsoever either to sports or national politics. However, elevators still had operators. Indeed, it is this lack of clues and references to buildings and streets that we do not know that is somewhat disturbing.

The second key point about this book is that it is an allegory without, cleverly, being an allegory of anything specific. It could be about anything – local or national politics, political philosophies, religion, general philosophies, internal disputes within a government department, Myers-Briggs personalities, racial differences. The beauty of it and the skill of Whitehead is that it can apply to pretty well what you want, where there are two opposing points of views, based on a different outlook, a different modus operandi. It is done somewhat tongue in cheek but Whitehead does make it clear that this sort of dialectical approach is what makes the world go round.

And then there is the racism and the sexism. Lila Mae Watson, our heroine, is an African-American woman, and has fought hard to get where she is, namely an elevator inspector with the Department of Elevator Inspectors. Her first week on the job she accompanied another (white male) inspector on his rounds. He did not speak a single word to her, not even telling her to get him a cup of coffee. She was not the first African-American in the Department. Pompey, husband and father, has quickly worked out that the way to survival (for him) was to play the Uncle Tom role. As he says, whites rule the world and they make the rules. All he can do is play along, even if it means helping the mob. Whitehead, of course, makes the comparison between Pompey and Lila Mae and while he is not too harsh on Pompey, he clearly backs Lila Mae who has to face both racism and sexism. (If there are any white women inspectors in the Department, they are not mentioned.) Whitehead certainly does not beat the drum but racism is mentioned in passing on many occasions, such as Lila Mae’s first date back home when she and her boyfriend have to go in separate entrances as well as the racist jokes (which Pompey feels obliged to laugh at) at the Department’s party. Indeed, if you don’t get it, then you are almost certainly white and unaware.

So what is it about? Very simply, the chair of the Department is subject to election and the elections are coming up. There are two factions in the Department – the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. The Empiricists – the good old boys – do things the old-fashioned way. They follow the book and check everything carefully. They also take bribes, get jobs with elevator manufacturers after retirement and hang out together. One interpretation of the allegory could be, of course, that they are congressional representatives, specifically Republicans. The other side, of which Lila Mae is one, are the Intuitionists. They are in the minority and look set to lose the election. Seeing them as Democrats is reinforced by Whitehead referring to them, on a couple of occasions, as liberals. On her first job in the book (and, as it happens, last) Lila Mae intuits a fault in an elevator without looking at it. The whole election is about dirty politics. Frank Chancre, current chair and confirmed Empiricist, is tied to the mob and is happy to use all the dirty tricks in the book to win again. When an elevator crashes down to the ground in a building, in the presence of the Mayor, dirty tricks are assumed by all sides. The last person to inspect this elevator was an intuitionist, Lila Mae. Lila Mae sets out to find what happened. Was it an accident (pure chance), sabotage or did she screw up? As she tells us, she never gets it wrong so sabotage seems the likely explanation and she has her theories. Coupled with this quest to clear herself is the search for the black box, which will allow the perfect elevator to be built, defined as the one with perfect elevatorness. But, as it is an intuitionist black box, developed by the now deceased James Fulton, Chancre and his buddies don’t want it found. Lila Mae gets involved in a series of complex plot twists as Whitehead keeps Lila Mae and us guessing and, of course, we get it wrong.

Whitehead has created a world which is both familiar and unfamiliar but which has its own consistent logic, which remains convincing for us. This story sticks to the Department of Elevator Inspectors and things relating to them, yet manages to go way, way beyond what, for most people, must seem a far from interesting topic. His great skill is at making this world both internally consistent but also alive and interesting for those of us not of that world, while telling us much about the truths of our world. Whether you read it for its clever plot, its philosophical basis or its political message, this is a book you must read.

Publishing history

First published 1998 by Doubleday