DIY MFA Reading List: “The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead’s excellent novel The Intuitionist is part gumshoe detective story, part speculative science fiction, part treatise on race relations in the United States, and all fun. From the very first sentence, we’re pulled into the story as if by force, and the tension doesn’t subside until the closing sentence.

In a strangely retro New York City, Lila Mae Watson is the only black woman employed within the ranks of the Department of Elevator Inspectors. An “Intuitionist” who can telepathically sense whether or not an elevator is defective, Lila Mae has a perfect record; though the more powerful “Empiricists” in the Elevator Guild are none too pleased about the arcane techniques she employs, which were developed within the liberal campus of the Institute for Vertical Transport by a legendary figure known as James Fulton.

In Whitehead’s metropolis, the politics of verticality take center stage, and Lila Mae soon finds herself caught up in a high-stakes game of pork-barrel politics as played out between her boss, Chancre (head of the Elevator Guild and a proponent of Empiricism) and Orville Lever (an Intuitionist running for president of the Elevator Guild). When an elevator she’s recently inspected suddenly crashes, Lila Mae descends into a Machiavellian underworld where nothing is as it seems, populated by Irish thugs, muckraking journalists, mob bosses, and shifty-eyed campaign managers with questionable scruples.

Whitehead’s Gotham is a city that devours its denizens, with a skyline like “a row of broken teeth”. Buildings “vomit” workers and theatre-goers, “burp their charges out onto the pavement”, and serve to remind the reader that Lila Mae – indeed all of us – are a kind of fodder for the political-industrial machine we call America. Reading this book so closely on the heels of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, I was struck by the similarities between the two stories. Whitehead has taken up where Ellison left off, writing a modern-day sequel that attempts to show how difficult it can be to overcome centuries of racial segregation and slavery.

As Lila Mae begins to unravel the mystery of who’s framed her, her story unfolds in taut prose layered with suspense and double meaning. Whitehead’s central conceit is that “white people’s reality is built on what things appear to be – that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge … on how they appear when held up to the light …”

Thus the battle between “the business” of Empiricism and the more spiritual approach of Intuitionism becomes a battle for the soul of the Guild, the city, and the future of the nation.

Whitehead’s sentences are polished to perfection. He describes a building superintendent as “melting as he leads Lila Mae across the grime-caulked black and white hexagonal tile … bulbous head dissolves into shoulders, then spreads into a broad pool of torso and legs.” And there is an extended kind of stag party thrown for the Department, hosted by “Rick Raymond and the Moon Rays”, which gives Don DeLillo’s Lenny Bruce schtick from Underworld a run for its money.

During this same scene, Whitehead returns to Ellison’s idea that racism denigrates everyone involved by making the “seen” invisible, and the “seer” less than human. The party-goers “do not see” Lila Mae or, for that matter, any of the other “colored help” attending to their increasingly debauched needs. Lila Mae suddenly realizes that:

Horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse, … She had been misled. What she had taken for pure truth had been revealed as merely filial agreement. And thus no longer pure. Blood agrees, it cannot help but agree, and how can you get any perspective on that? Blood is destiny in this land, and she did not choose Intuitionism, as she formerly believed. It chose her.

I highly recommend this book to anyone. Slim, at only 250 pages or so, it’s a quick, exciting, and immersing reading experience. It’s an important book, with the power to permanently change how you look at people (not to mention elevators).

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.