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.
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.