Hello readers and welcome to this latest entry in the Reading List. As mentioned previously, over the past years I have made it a goal to include more BIPOC authors on the list. To that end I decided to read Colson Whitehead’s impressive 1999 debut novel, The Intuitionist.
This was a phenomenal read for my reasons, but was made all the more amazing given that it was Whitehead’s first work (he would go on to win the Pulitizer for The Underground Railroad). The book centers around the Guild of Elevator Inspectors and the two classes therein, Empiricists (who use technical skill and ability to inspect whether elevators are working properly) and Intuitionists (who merely touch the sides of the elevators to intuit what is wrong with them). Lila Mae Watson, who is the first Black female inspector ever allowed into the Guild, falls firmly into the Intuitionist camp and is widely mistrusted by the other older men in the Guild. An elevator she recently inspected has what is termed a “catastrophic accident” and plunges many floors to the ground (fortunately nobody was on it). The book unwinds around Lila Mae’s attempts to figure out what happened, who possibly set her up, and the origins of the Intuitionists. Lila Mae runs into many Intuitionist characters who initially seem to be helpful but are in actuality notorious and trying to use her toward more devious ends as the Guild election comes up.
I could go on about the plot some more but suffice it to say this book was magisterial in how it handles race relations. As stated, Lila Mae is the first and only Black female elevator inspector and is treated like garbage not only in the inspector universe but in the world at large (which is pretty obviously New York City in some time like the 1950’s but never named as such): being forced in her university days to live in a cramped room above a gymnasium, later having to find an apartment in a largely immigrant based neighborhood which after the accident gets rooted around in by two tough guys, going undercover during the “Funicular Follies” and viewing her co-workers watching and laughing at a blackface show, and generally being seen as inferior to the white people that make up the majority of the other characters in the book (she and other Black characters within the novel are repeatedly noted as being “colored”). Lila Mae figures into a mysterious mailing of notebooks from James Fulton, the founder of the Intuitionist school of thought (who she discovers was Black) and ends up spending much of the later half of the novel looking for his “black box” elevator, also known as the one that will bring forth the “second elevation.” There is a lot of elevator talk in this book and it’s clear that Whitehead did his research on them. The intrigue among the characters goes on for quite some time and kept me riveted to the page each time I sat with this book. The language used is quite smooth and flowing and Whitehead intimately knows how to turn a great phrase.
I would definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking for a rip roaring investigative type story that also handles the topic of race with incredible perception and dedication. There is a pretty big character reveal at the end that I won’t give away but puts a shade on much of the plot that came beforehand. Also at the end we get a glimpse of where Lila Mae might be heading next on her Intuitionist journey. Again I would highly recommend this novel and I am eagerly awaiting the next one of Whitehead’s I get to devour. Thanks as always for joining me on this reading adventure.
Hello readers and welcome to this latest entry in the Reading List. As mentioned previously, over the past years I have made it a goal to include more female and BIPOC authors on the list. To that end I decided first up this year would be Toni Morrison’s landmark 1987 novel Beloved.
To start with I must say this was one of the best novels I’ve read in years and taught me a lot about the position of Black people in Civil War era society and how their lives were affected by (as written in the novel) “whitepeople” throughout their lives. The novel follows the main character Sethe as she escapes from slavery and gives birth to her daughter Denver on the way. But that is not the entire plot of the book as it jumps around quite a bit in time, which at first was a bit disorienting but by the time I finished it I realized why Morrison made the choices she did. There is a horrendous choice made by Sethe once she realizes she is going to be caught and brought back into the world of slavery that leads to her losing one of her own daughters, “Beloved” (so named because that was all she could afford on the tombstone). The child goes on to haunt the house where they stay after Sethe goes to jail for her act, causing her two sons to flee the home. However in an odd chance of fate Sethe is seemingly reunited with Beloved eighteen years after the incident and Sethe brings her into the home she has created with another former slave of “Sweet Home,” Paul D. Most of the story takes place at the home for escaped slaves that Sethe’s step-mother Baby Suggs founded but we also get to see the backstory of several of the characters and get an idea of how they escaped the plantation. Baby Suggs was a kind of preacher that assembled others to “the Clearing” where she gave messages and talked about what they had left. Sethe also had a husband at Sweet Home named Halle who did not make the escape.
About halfway through the novel Paul D leaves after some unfortunate encounters with Beloved, and the novel shifts to a perspective of how Beloved takes over the household. Denver is forced to leave to reconnect with the society that had abandoned them in the wake of Sethe’s fateful choice many years ago. She finds work, and once she begins to gain the confidence of the other women in the city they gather up to cast out what has become a malevolent presence in the home. Sethe then has a flashback to her earlier life which leads to a brief outpouring of violence. Thankfully the person she attacks has been helping Black people for many years and lets her return to the home. There she reconnects to Paul D, who had his own journey to make with some other characters, namely “Stamp Paid.”
It’s hard to describe this powerful, phenomenal work in so many words without wholeheartedly recommending it to anyone who is looking for an incredible story set in the Civil War era and afterward, a brutally unflinching look at how slavery affects the entire person and their past, and how escaping it is not so easy even after the fact. I would say I have not encountered a novel that explores these themes so deftly since reading Kindred a few years ago. I would highly recommend this novel for anyone (like me) who is looking to gain a better perspective beyond their usual one. Thank you for once again joining me on this reading adventure.
John Abraham is a published author and freelance journalist who lives in the Twin Cities with his wife Mary and their cat. He is writing a speculative dystopian novel and is seeking representation and a publisher.