The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

#BeatTheBacklist book 12
2017 book 12

Format: ebook
Length: 273 pages
Published: 1999

What It’s About…

In an alternate version of a large American city (New York?) at an unspecified time in the past (1950s?) one of the most powerful organizations in the country is… the Elevator Guild. Elevators ushered in the modern city and as such elevators and the people responsible for their regulation, inspection, and maintenance are held in high regard.

“But who can resist the seductions of elevators these days, those stepping stones to Heaven, which make relentless verticality so alluring?”

As in any powerful organization, there are warring factions and virulent politics within the Elevator Guild.  The more traditional Empiricists, who dutifully inspect all parts manually, turn their noses up at the newer school of Intuitionists who commune with the elevator to get a feel for how it is operating.  As the guild’s first black woman elevator inspector, Lila Mae Watson already has two strikes against her in the eyes of many of her colleagues.  Add to that the fact that she is an Intuitionist and you begin to see what she is up against.  Lila Mae faces not so much a glass ceiling as a steel enforced concrete  barrier situated right at about shoulder level.  All but one of the men in the city’s Department of Elevator Inspectors shun her, she has no friends, and no life outside of work.  Still, community is a price she is willing to pay to fulfill her dream of working as an elevator inspector and she is proud of her 100% accuracy rate, even if it does fuel her colleagues’ animosity.

Lila Mae’s carefully managed world is thrown into disarray when an elevator in a brand new building plummets down its shaft after she issued it a clean bill of health.  The accident places her career in jeopardy, and it may cause her to question her formerly unshakable faith in Intuitionism.

The accident causes the battle between Empiricists and Intuitionists explodes into open warfare just in time for the upcoming elections for guild chair.  Determined to clear her name, Lila Mae drops out of sight to investigate the crash.  She learns that pages of the father of Intuitionism’s lost journals may have been found.  These journal pages are suspected to include a description of the ultimate Intuitionist elevator, the black box.  Is Lila Mae being sabotaged for political reasons? Has she been set up to discredit Intuitionism before the black box is discovered? Or did she make a tragic mistake?

What I Thought…

This book would have been better if I read it with a group.  Preferably a group of English literature professors.  I felt like my gut reactions to characters got in the way of my understanding what Whitehead was really getting at.  Lila Mae is a frustrating heroine.  She is unwilling to advocate on her own behalf and seems to channel most of her considerable strength into futile efforts at invisibility.    As the only black woman in her profession, she cannot help but stand out.  Her response to this is to be quiet, nonthreatening, and faultless in her work.  She has a 100% accuracy rating at work because she has to, because any error would confirm her coworkers’ suspicions that she is not good enough, that her race and her gender mark her as unfit to be among their ranks.  Lila Mae dresses conservatively and immaculately.  She is not visibly ambitious or self-promoting, but neither is she obsequious.  She hides behind an exterior of nondescript professionalism, but she may as well be hiding behind a glass wall.  She has a bulls-eye on her back and nothing can change that.

The book got heady at times and I found myself having to reread passages to understand their significance.  In her efforts to understand the events surrounding the elevator accident that upended her world, Lila Mae stumbles upon a conspiracy within a conspiracy and suddenly the book is only tangentially about elevators.  It is hard to talk about what it is really about without offering up Spoilers.  It is obviously about race and racism, but it is also about what happens when the foundation of our belief system is revealed to be nothing but loose sand.  Lila Mae’s response to this is profound.  I will be thinking about this book for a long while.

I challenged myself to read 50 books this year published before 2017 as part of the Beat The Backlist challenge.  You can find a list of the books I have read so far and links to my ramblings and reviews here.  The list is evolving and I am always looking for recommendations for both current and older books.  

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