Lila Mae Watson is the first female elevator inspector in the history of the unnamed city that forms the backdrop in Colson Whitehead’s intriguing first novel. The city is clearly New York, and the period is the 1950’s. Onto that realistic setting, however, Whitehead has grafted an astonishing fictional world centering around the philosophical disputes and political infighting in the city’s Department of Elevator Inspectors. An election is coming up for the department chair, and the two candidates contesting it belong to different wings of the Elevator Inspectors’ Guild. Frank Chancre represents the Empiricists. These are the inspectors who in the traditional manner physically inspect the elevators for safety. They follow the rule book; they trust what they see. Their rivals are the upstart Intuitionists, who, as their name implies, merely have to step into the elevator and intuit mentally whether it is in satisfactory condition. The idea is that the inspector communicates with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis.
Lila Mae Watson, a young black woman who came to New York from the South, is an Intuitionist. She works by turning the movement of the elevator into pictures in her mind, a whirl of geometric forms and colors. By doing this she can pick up even tiny malfunctions, and she is rarely wrong. In fact, although they are despised by the Empiricists as “voodoo men, swamis, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis” (the allusion to largely nonwhite culture is no accident) the Intuitionists, especially Lila Mae, have a 10 percent better safety record than the Empiricists. Nevertheless, Intuitionism is regarded as heresy by the old guard.
What sets the novel in motion is a shock to Lila Mae: an elevator that she has only recently inspected goes into free fall and crashes. Such crashes are very rare, and there is a hint of possible sabotage. Have the Empiricist followers of Chancre deliberately caused the crash in order to discredit their rival (Oliver Lever, the Intuitionist candidate) in the upcoming election? It is against this background of possible dirty tricks that the novel unfolds.
Because of the elevator failure, Lila Mae’s own position as an inspector is in immediate jeopardy. As a black woman she is vulnerable in the city anyway, and much of The Intuitionist is an exploration of what it means (or meant, since the time period is the 1950’s) to be a black person—“colored” is the period term used in the novel—in a white-dominated society. What transpires is reminiscent of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, The Invisible Man. More often than not, to be black is simply to be unseen. This is brought out vividly when Lila Mae, who wants to keep out of sight during the few days following the accident, finds herself at an elevator inspectors’ bash at a plush hotel. She dons the black uniform of the menial worker and enters the banquet room, knowing that no one will be looking at her. She is correct; disguise is unnecessary.
They do not see her. . . . They see colored skin and a servant’s uniform. As an inspector she confronts superintendents, building managers, who do not see her until she shows her badge. In the Pit, she toils over paperwork next to these men every day. In here they do not see her. She is the colored help.
This theme, of people seeing only what they have been conditioned to see, carries over into the philosophical underpinnings of the novel. As the plot develops, readers learn there is a mystery to be solved. It appears that James Fulton, the founder of Intuitionism, left behind him after his death a blueprint for the “black box,” a perfect elevator that would be constructed on Intuitionist principles. The black box is the Holy Grail of the elevator industry. Enthusiasts discuss it with a kind of mystical intensity as an elevator that will totally transform the “stunted shacks” of current cities. With due religious awe they call this the “second elevation,” a parody of the Second Coming of Christ.
The extracts from Fulton’s book Theoretical Elevators, Volume II, that appear at intervals in the novel show how Fulton approached his work. He writes of the elevator as if it were a living being. Our...