Colson Whitehead Essay - Critical Essays


Colson Whitehead writes novels that break the traditional rules of fiction writing. His works defy classification into the standard categories. In The Intuitionist, the inclusion of features of the detective story add to the intrigue of the novel, but at the same time the work satirizes the detective story. The novel is really neither satire nor detective fiction per se. The setting of The Intuitionist is anachronistic: The city in which the fiction takes place is futuristic in the technology depicted and in the focus of the inhabitants on verticality; in this world, elevators are the cornerstone of society. Ethically and morally, however, the inhabitants of the city resemble people living in a city in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

In John Henry Days, Whitehead experiments even more with the novel form. He exercises his privilege as author to take the narrative where he wishes, ignoring any traditional formula. The work includes many digressions and interpolated stories as Whitehead presents events without regard for chronological order. There is a shooting in the novel that Whitehead recounts very early in the work and then again near the end—and neither time does he reveal who was killed. The novel ends without closure; rather, the reader is left to finish the story.

The Intuitionist

The Intuitionist is a combination of allegory, detective novel, futuristic novel, and social satire that addresses prejudice and racial discrimination. The story is set in a large metropolitan city in the middle of the twentieth century. The society is highly advanced technologically and totally devoted to a cult of elevators. Progress is linked to verticality and its improvement, and modernization and success are equated with upward mobility. Everyone reads Lift, a weekly magazine that informs the public about what is happening in the elevator industry. Other aspects of the society contrast sharply with its technologically advanced status, however. Political corruption, exploitation, and racial prejudice govern everyday life. Technologically the society is futuristic, but morally it remains locked in a 1940’s or 1950’s mentality. Using elements of the detective story of the mid-twentieth century—such as mobsters, abandoned warehouses, and late-night assignations—Whitehead gives the story an ambiance of believability.

The Intuitionist recounts the trials of Lila Mae Watson, an African American elevator inspector. She works for the Department of Elevator Inspectors, which, in this verticality obsessed society, is one of the most powerful departments, possibly the most powerful, in the metropolis. All elevator inspectors adhere to one of two different approaches to elevator inspection: An elevator inspector is either an Empiricist or an Intuitionist. An Empiricist inspects an elevator by getting into the elevator shaft and checking the mechanism to see if it meets the specifications. An Intuitionist, in contrast, evaluates the condition of an elevator by listening and by feeling the mechanism’s vibrations, becoming one with the elevator. The department is heavily staffed by Empiricists, and Lila Mae is an Intuitionist. Lila Mae’s life is a constant ordeal, as she is marginalized by her race, her sex, and her adherence to Intuitionist theory.

In spite of her exclusion, Lila Mae has an impressive record as an inspector and is assigned to inspect the elevators in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. A short time after she has inspected the elevators there, one of the elevators crashes. This is a catastrophe for her, given that it could mean the end of her career, and she becomes determined to find out what happened. The Elevator Guild is in the process of electing a new guild chair; the two candidates are Frank Chancre, an Empiricist, and Orville Lever, an Intuitionist. Lila Mae becomes convinced that Chancre, who is known to have connections to a mob boss, has had the elevator sabotaged.

Whitehead complicates his narrative by adding another intrigue: Suddenly papers from the research of the late James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, start showing up with Lila Mae’s name on them. Fulton had been researching a black box, the perfect next-generation elevator. Lila Mae decides that she must find the blueprints for the black box and at the same time exonerate herself in regard to the crash. Whitehead turns his narrative into a detective novel as he relates Lila Mae’s search, which involves deceptions, false leads, and mob enforcers, and an ambiance of danger invades the narrative. After he has led the reader as well as Lila Mae down a number of false trails, Whitehead concludes the story in a totally unexpected way. The elevator was not sabotaged, it just did a...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)