Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead

Summary: Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector, and she is also an Intuitionist.  Elevator inspectors are divided into two groups: Empiricists, who inspect elevators by examining the parts, and Intuitionists, who inspect elevators by "sensing" them.  Intuitionism is a newer and not fully accepted field in the elevator inspector industry, and that--and more importantly, the color of Lila's skin--has made her an outsider.  When an elevator Lila recently inspected goes into catastrophic failure and Lila is blamed, Lila becomes determined to discover who caused the crash and why.  Meanwhile, there are rumors that papers exist from James Fulton, the founder of Intuitionism, which contain a blueprint for the "black box"--the perfect elevator, and these papers may be connected to Lila.

Musings: Although I enjoyed The Intuitionist, it's a book that I find nearly impossible to describe.  It's a philosophical detective novel existing in an odd world that is absurd and terribly realistic.  Although I don't believe a specific year is given, the book seems to take place in a pseudo-1950s.  Despite Lila's placement, racism is rampant, and Lila's acutely aware that she does not belong.  She has developed a steely facade to protect herself, which only separates her more.  So while this aspect seems realistic of American history, Whitehead's world is also one in which elevators have extraordinary and bizarre importance.  It's a world in which such odd musings as this occur: "At its core, Intuitionism is about communicating with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis. 'Separate the elevator from elevatorness,' right?" (62).  The juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic (and sometimes the esoteric) forms a central aspect of the book.

The entire book is told straight-forwardly, making it easy to sometimes miss the humor and sarcasm.  Nonetheless, the style matches Lila herself, who has allowed few emotions to permeate her life.  I was surprised by how affecting Whitehead's style was; something about his words echoed with me.  I'd almost describe the prose as haunting, but that indicates a gloominess that wasn't present.  The structure of the book itself also reinforces the mood; sections change points of view and points of time, sometimes jumping back to illuminate a recent section.

Past all the absurdity, The Intuitionist is largely about race and identity, and Whitehead expertly weaves this message together by the end of the novel.  I'm sure I missed aspects of the allegory, however, so this is a book that I especially wish I had a book group to discuss it with.

I don't read a lot of modernist fiction, but I would definitely read more of Whitehead's work.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

No comments:

Post a Comment