Thursday, June 26, 2008

Recommended reading: The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead. The Intuitionist. New York. Anchor Books. 1999. $13.95 (paper).

The novel's setting is a mid-20th-century Manhattan-like metropolis, with finned cars and transistor radios. But something is off in Colson Whitehead's city: the newsstands are filled with not Life but Lift, a magazine of elevators. The plot focuses on the rivalry between two schools of elevator inspection — Empiricists, who inspect the machine's innards to judge its condition, and Intuitionists, who do their work by imaginatively grasping the machine's condition. The Intuitionist of the novel's title is Miss Lila Mae Watson, a graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport and the first "colored woman" to work in the city's powerful, prestigious Department of Elevator Inspectors.

Like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, The Intuitionist is an allegory about color in America. Like Ellison's narrator, Lila Mae is a young African-American struggling upward and set up (it seems) to fail. But there's more than color involved: the conflict between Empiricists and Intuitionists involves different ways of constructing the relation between subject and object (or subject and elevator). Thus the wondrous excerpts from the two-volume Theoretical Elevators by James Fulton, the godfather of Intuitionism, who puzzles over the "vertical imperative" and the "index of being": "where the elevator is when it is not in service."

The Intuitionist is most wonderful when Whitehead fuses these postmodern concerns with the stuff of detective fiction and film noir, notably in the search for the "black box," Fulton's plans for an elevator built on Intuitionist principles. The name suggests not only flight data recorders and objects whose workings cannot be seen but also the "black bird" of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, another object sought by rival factions.

Here's a sample passage. I think that if you like it, reader, you'll like the novel. It's from a conversation about the black box between Lila Mae and a teacher of Intuitionism:

"I don't see how that's possible," Lila Mae murmurs, twisting a button on her suit. "I mean from an engineering standpoint. At its core, Intuitionism is about communicating with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis. 'Separate the elevator from elevatorness,' right? Seems hard to build something of air out of steel."

Mr. Reed withdraws a cigarette from a silver case. "They're not as incompatible as you might think," he says. "That's what Volume One hinted at and Volume Two tried to express in its ellipses — a renegotiation of our relationship to objects. To start at the beginning."

"I don't get you," Lila Mae admits. Reluctantly.

"If we have decided that elevator studies — nuts and bolts Empiricism — imagined elevators from a human, and therefore inherently alien point of view, wouldn't the next logical step, after we've adopted the Intuitionist perspective, be to build an elevator the right way? With what we've learned?"

"Construct an elevator from the elevator's point of view."

"Wouldn't that be the perfect elevator? Wouldn't that be the black box?" Mr. Reed's left eyelid trembles.
I'm looking forward to reading everything else Colson Whitehead has written.

Related post
Colson Whitehead, "Visible Man"

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