By Colson Whitehead
Anchor. 255 pp. $19.95
Whenever I ride elevators now, I perceive the experience as magical. I find myself dissecting these journeys inside steel boxes for both their technological efficiency and their aesthetic qualities. Blame my sudden reexamination of traveling on one of the most useful American inventions on young Colson Whitehead and his brilliant debut novel. In "The Intuitionist," Whitehead somehow accomplishes two completely unrelated things: He educates the reader in some of the specifics of elevator technology and carves out an exclusive space for himself in America's literary canon.
Ralph Ellison, Stephen King, E.L. Doctorow and Walter Mosley often came to mind as I read the book. But mostly I thought of Dick Tracy and the Green Hornet--those colorful heroes and fascinating story lines I adored as a child. Regardless of whom Colson Whitehead has been influenced by, "The Intuitionist" is the most original novel by an African American male writer in years.
It's the story of Lila Mae Watson, the first colored female elevator inspector in the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a very Ellisonian town, which is never given a name. These are the years before integration: Lila Mae cannot move about freely in social situations like the other characters. She is an inspector who solves the problems with elevators intuitively. This radical technique contrasts with the method used by the dominant group of inspectors, the Empiricists, who control the department and want to curb the spread of Intuitionism and its practitioners, whom the Empiricists call "swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis."
In the midst of the ideological war between the two factions, an elevator inspected by Lila Mae goes into free fall while the mayor is visiting the building. So begins Lila Mae's quest not only to repair her own reputation and save the Intuitionist school but also to find the lost blueprints for the "black box," an elevator design based on Intuitionist principles that will be the wave of the future.
The characterizations, plot changes, metaphorical suggestions, racial politics and surprises connected with this mad quest for the black box are too numerous to mention here, but this is where Whitehead's background as a TV critic at the Village Voice serves him well. His imagination and writing skills always keep the story fresh and will undoubtedly keep you guessing.
The book has loads of interesting characters. There is the legendary elevator genius James Fulton, whose mysterious persona becomes the key to the story and who makes some of the author's sly pronouncements on race. There is Frank Chancre, the psychotic head of the Department of Elevator Inspectors. And there is Lila Mae's only friend, Chuck, who has his red hair "coaxed and primed" into a coif called a "safety" and who inspects the city's escalators, which are described as "the lowliest conveyance on the totem pole."
By the time you finish "The Intuitionist," you may find yourself screaming for Lila Mae to solve all of her problems, including locating those sacred blueprints. And like me, each time you step into an elevator in the future, you might find yourself wondering if it has been properly inspected and whether it was done by an Empiricist or an Intuitionist.