Colson Whitehead is best known as author of The Underground Railroad, the magic realist take on slavery that had people going crazy a couple of years ago. This, The Intuitionist, is his 1999 debut, and although it has much to recommend, it’s a somewhat circuitous allegory that left me a little confused by the end, though this may be because I wasn’t paying enough attention. It also – far more than I was expecting – feels like a Big American novel from 1999, in that it contains tweaks on reality, a veiled New York as its setting, as well as shifts in voice and the impression, from time to time, of using “found texts” within the main narrative.
The Intuitionist is set in a steampunky alternate mid-20th century, where elevators (lifts) are the most important public conveyances in the world, and the people who inspect them basically run the city (with a little help from their friends, the mob). There are two types of elevator (lift) inspectors: the first is the Empiricists (i.e. the traditionalists), who use close physical examinations to make their inspections, measuring and checking and confirming with evidence. The second type of inspectors are the Intuitionists, who inspect elevators (lifts) not by measuring anything, but by riding the elevators (lifts) and feeling, sensing, knowing, what is happening to the machine in the parts they cannot see. Obviously, there is lots of disapproval of this witchcrafty inspectoral style, but in the world of The Intuitionist, it does seem to work. Until, of course, it doesn’t.
The protagonist of the novel is Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman to be employed by the city as an elevator (lift) inspector. She is also an intuitionist. As a “representative” of three different types of progressivism within the city, she is constantly being watched. To be an intuitionist is to be in the minority, to be black and an intuitionist is to be in a tiny minority, but to be black, female and an intuitionist makes her a truly unique individual. The corrupt, conservative, boss of the inspectorate want to make an example of her failing, and likewise their rival factions are keen for her to succeed. Lila Mae becomes embroiled in the corporate competition between the two biggest elevator (lift) manufacturers, each of whom have connections to violence, each of whom have a favoured candidate in the forthcoming election for control of the inspectors.
The man who invented intuitionism is dead, but there are rumours that he invented the perfect elevator (lift) before he died, and there seems to be an aggressive race between the intuitionists and the empiricists to find this, because its construction is inevitable, and all want to be associated with the discovery of the future, even if the mechanics of the elevator (lift) prove or disprove their faction’s central theories.
In short, it’s a very busy novel: there are lots and lots of things going on, lots of overlapping plotlines, lots of characters who fake their identities for a period, lots of double agents, and some quite pointed and articulate points to be made about early attempts at representation, integration and diversity. Whitehead’s novel doesn’t have the direct simplicity of The Underground Railroad, but it does have the same salience as that novel. This feels, though, like a first novel: it is more complicated than it needs to be. The Intuitionist is only 250 pages long, but it feels longer and I regularly had to flip back a few pages (or more) to check who a character was. I was busy this week, I had two friends visiting from my previous life, and I was also writing my first ever paid commission for a national newspaper, as well as creating more sad poems, doing more English teaching and all the other kooky bullshit my life involves. Trying to promote my poems, update the index on this blog, yadda yadda yadda: maybe the fault was entirely mine, maybe I wasn’t paying Whitehead’s novel the attention it needed and slash or deserved?
The thing is, though, I read a lot. And I think – disagree with me if you want – that I read a varied selection of books, and if one doesn’t engage me, I feel comfortable saying that it’s the book’s fault. I don’t like to be confused. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy plot twists and surprises and crazy ideas, it means I don’t like books with too many characters. How many is too many? Too many is when I can’t remember who is who, too many is when the name doesn’t have a body or a soul behind it. Maybe, though, this is deliberate on Whitehead’s part, because Lila Mae and her [sort of] love interest are both well written and engaging, and the characters that became blurred in my head were the faceless, rival, white company men that Lila Mae is caught between.
The Intuitionists and the Empiricists merged into one in my head, the bruisers of one side merged into the bruisers on the other, the politicians merged into one, but it may well be that this is exactly the response Whitehead desired. Because all of these middle-aged mediocre white men are the people who run the world, whose little bets and games and schemes are the things that move normal people in and out of poverty. These are the people who can never lose and are thus happy to risk everyone else’s everything. I’m typing this the week of the Brett Kavanagh hearing (which may well have been forgotten by the time this is published) and it’s the reality this exhibits which allows me to make this – possibly generous – assessment of The Intuitionist. The “good” white guys aren’t all that different from the “bad” ones, and often – as is happening all over the world at the moment – the electorate almost seem to prefer the openly “bad” ones because they presume (sometimes rightly!) that the supposedly “good” ones have some pretty dark desires they’re trying to hide.
Lila Mae is good at her work, an exceptional inspector, but the people who control the companies and the institutions are navel-gazing, self-absorbed dinosaurs. Just like the real world.
Maybe this is a book that deserves a more uninterrupted read than I gave it, maybe it’s one for a long afternoon rather than a week of public transport use. Who knows?
Enjoyable, with some important political ideas, but it doesn’t have the wow factor of Whitehead’s latest.
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