Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1723
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...
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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 present elevators are weak and unpredictable, he says; humans have to make themselves conform to the elevator’s physical limitations. What is needed is a renegotiation “of our relationship with objects.” The perfect elevator would be constructed not from the human point of view but from the point of view of the elevator. Students of Intuitionism earnestly discuss these delightful pieces of philosophical hokum, declaring, for example, that it is necessary to “separate the elevator from elevatorness.”
Behind all this there is a serious theme. “There is another world beyond this one,” writes Fulton, and the extracts from Theoretical Elevators show that he sees the elevator as a metaphor for human life. He expounds, for example, on a concept he calls “the gloom of the shaft,” which duplicates the gloom inside every living creature. Understood in this vein, the black box is a metaphor for a whole new way in which humans might relate to each other, based on seeing through the veil of things as they seem. It is clear that Fulton was a visionary.
Everyone wants to get his or her hands on Fulton’s plans for the black box, especially the two rival camps in the upcoming election, for if it gets out that a black box has been constructed on Intuitionist principles, the future of Chancre and his Empiricist colleagues would look grim. It is the intrigue surrounding this hunt, which involves kidnappings, beatings, the mob, and a number of surprising revelations, that is the kernel of the plot.
As Lila Mae sets out to discover whether Fulton’s design of a black box really does exist, she discovers to her amazement that James Fulton was black, the light-skinned child of a white man and a black woman. Since childhood he had been able to pass himself off in the world as white. As a result of this discovery, Lila Mae feels a sudden kinship with him. They are both spies in a white world.
Lila Mae also begins to read Fulton’s work in a new light. Before, when Fulton had written cryptically about “the curse of the race,” which cannot fulfill its dream of being uplifted, she had assumed he was referring to the human race, but now she sees the full implications of the phrase. If Intuitionism is the way of the future, it actually belongs to black culture, not the white people who have appropriated it. As one of Lila Mae’s black associates remarks: “But it’s our future, not theirs. It’s ours. And we need to take it back. What he made, this elevator, colored people made that. It’s ours.” Here the novel seems to hint at or parallel the intellectual debate, promoted by various African American scholars, that the origins of white European civilization owed much to ideas originating in Africa—a fact that has, according to some, been deliberately obscured by white historians.
Although Whitehead’s purpose is serious, he is also a master of deadpan humor, and the novel is frequently hilarious. In his intricately imagined fictional world, the elevator industry has an importance and a public visibility that seems almost equivalent to, say, that of the computer industry in the early twenty-first century. Elevator companies bring out new models each season as if they were fashion designers; advertisements for different elevators appear on billboards, park benches, buses and subways, and even in film theaters:
One time before the start of a double feature at her favorite movie house—the Marquee on Twenty-Third Street . . . Lila Mae sat astonished as a thirty-second movie reel introduced American Elevator’s new frictionless drive. From time to time Lila Mae still catches herself humming the spot’s elastic doo-wop chorus. . . . It’s a relatively recent phenomenon, the vocality of the international short-range vertical transport industry, and there’s no one to explain it.
The class divisions and rituals of the industry are treated to similar deadpan satire. One of Lila Mae’s few friends is an inspector named Chuck, who has been bold enough to specialize, not in elevators, but in escalators:
Given elevator inspection’s undeniable macho cachet and preferential treatment within the Guild, it takes a unique personality to specialize in escalators, the lowliest conveyance on the totem pole. Escalator safety has never received its due respect, probably because inspecting the revolving creatures is so monotonous that few have the fortitude, the stomach for vertigo, necessary to stare at the cascading teeth all day.
Because of this, there is a nationwide shortage of escalator professors in the Institutes, and Chuck’s aim is to get himself a secure teaching job. He even has all the details of his syllabus worked out in advance.
The Inspectors’ Guild even has its own patron saint, and Whitehead is obviously enjoying himself as he describes St. Roland the Carpenter, who in the thirteenth century heard an image of the Virgin Mary say to him, “’Lift the people to His Kingdom, ” as a result of which he developed the belief that all churches should have two floors, the upper level being devoted to prayer. St. Roland founded the Order of the Gradual Stair; one of his sayings that has been preserved is, “Let us take one leg up, and He will carry us the rest of the way.” His emblem in art is three stairs.
Apart from a few egregious errors (including “discreet” for “discrete” and “decent” for “descent”) it would be hard to find fault with this unusual literary debut. In its themes, The Intuitionist has a depth and complexity that repay more than one reading. It also possesses a well drawn cast of characters, from guilty white liberals, overt and covert racists, to black “Uncle Toms,” and to Lila Mae herself, who makes her way with openness and determination in a world that is more treacherous, more uncertain than she had imagined, but which also contains the seeds of new hope.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (December 1, 1998): 651.
Library Journal 124 (October 15, 1999): 132.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (February 7, 1999): 9.
Newsweek 133 (January 11, 1999): 66.
Publishers Weekly 245 (November 16, 1998): 56.
Time 153 (January 25, 1999): 78.