I’m using this as my #machinery square in Bingo!
I originally bought this book for an undergraduate class, like 15 years ago. And we never got around to reading it. Ever since, it’s been on my “to read” list.
I can’t believe I waited so long!
Colson Whitehead has risen to prominence for his other works – especially The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys and Harlem Shuffle – but this is his first novel. And it’s fantastic.
The Intuitionist takes place in an alternate history that feels very much like 1950s and 60s NYC. One of the most prominent government departments is the Department of Elevators, and being an Elevator Inspector is a position of great privilege. Lila Mae Watson is the first ever Black woman hired as an Inspector, and she takes her job very seriously. One day, there is an accident – an elevator (Number Eleven in the Fannie Briggs Building) free falls to its doom. The accident comes at a precarious time in the world of elevation – there’s an election coming up and, as always, it’s a vicious fight between the two factions in Elevator Inspection – the Empiricists and the Intuitionists.
Intuitionists, informed by James Fulton’s revolution works Theoretical Elevators Volumes one and two, sense the elevators and any issues they might have. While Empiricists methodically check each aspect of the machine and its supports. And both sides are blaming the accident on the other. It’s up to Lila Mae – who has a surprising connection to Fulton – to discover the truth. All the while, she tries to find her way in the world of Elevator Inspectors as an outsider.
This novel is exciting on so many levels. It’s an alternate history, speculative fiction, a race allegory, a political thriller, and a noir mystery all at the same time. It took me a while to get used to the world that Whitehead had built. I must admit, I’ve never really thought about elevators all that much, but the world of the novel is filled with all sorts of opinions and details and factions dedicated to various brands of elevators (and even escalators). Lila Mae is also quite a stoic character, unless she’s thinking about how much she loves being an Elevator Inspector, so it was difficult for me to get a sense of her at first. But once I was into the narrative, I couldn’t put the book down.
On top of the imaginative story and the world-building, Whitehead is simply a beautiful writer. This is a difficult book to read quickly because of the language and the turns of phrase. If you skim, you may get the story, but you miss the essence of the writing. I’m excited to read more and more from Whitehead.