What a unique mixture of characters! An elevator inspector who senses mechanical flaws without seeing them. A man who claims to have designed an elevator based on the mechanism’s point of view. Manufacturers warring over documents that could revolutionize or destroy their industry. Not to mention a labor union campaign complete with goons who break your fingers if you step out of line.
Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist begins with a mysterious elevator crash that implicates Lila Mae Watson, who has fought her way through prejudicial barriers to become the city’s first black and female inspector. It seems that the leading candidate for leadership of her guild may have staged the crash to crush the Intuitionist movement.
Forced into hiding, she goes searching for a mysterious “black box” conceived by the late James Fulton. Lila Mae gets caught in a battle between Empiricists, who adhere to conventional ideas, and Intuitionists like herself, who believe elevators operate on a set of principles beyond human understanding.
Whitehead demonstrates a detailed knowledge of elevator mechanics and their history going back to the Nineteenth Century. He uses it to build a plausible atmosphere in which the outcome of Lila Mae’s adventure may determine the future of safety procedures affecting the lives of people who ride elevators every day.
I particularly enjoyed an academic discussion in which the author reinvents the old question of whether there is noise if a tree falls in a forest. Does an elevator exist only when it has a passenger? Does it then return to “eternal quiescence?” Such quirky musings form the basis of the Intuitionist movement.
But this book is more than lofty theories. There are shadowy characters, none of whom Lila Mae is sure she can trust. There are flashbacks and flashes of insight. There are flight and pursuit. And there is violence, particularly in the case of an investigative reporter who runs afoul of forces bent on protecting their interests.
The Intuitionist contains a small number of offensive words and quite a few facial slurs typical of the time period it represents. Nevertheless, because of its unique style and subject, I give Whitehead’s novel a five-star rating.