The Intuitionist

Thoughts  by Colson Whitehead, Anchor Books Doubleday 1999, 255 pages

Challenge: none
Genre: Literary Fiction
Type/Source: Hardcover / Library

When Pie-faced Annie shakes off her stupor, she will recall a strange dream about elevators and falling, and will chalk it up to falling off the toilet, which will happen in about an hour.”

MOTIVATION for READING: With Whitehead winning the Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, I wanted to try something else he has written. This one appealed to me the most and it was available at my library.

At the pounding of the door, she closes the book (the pages resist each other, so jealous and protective are they of Lila Mae’s touch).”

WHAT’s it ABOUT: Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman Elevator Inspector. She keeps to herself, trusts few, is dedicated to the work. She is on Team-Intuitionism. Most of the old-boys-club members of the Department where Lila Mae works are Team-Empiricism. One day, an elevator crashes in a brand new building just as the Mayor is about to show it off to dignitaries and VIPS. Luckily, no one was inside the box. A cable was cut? broke? what HAPPENED? Unfortunately, Lila Mae was the last person to ‘see’ the elevator in proper working condition. Was it a set up? But why and by whom? Games are afoot, as they say; none are what they seem.

Lila Mae is determined to clear her name and even more than that, to understand what is really important.

Lila Mae’s been a practicing solipsist since before she could walk, and the days’ recent events are doing irreparable damage to her condition.”

WHAT’s GOOD: I really enjoyed the writing and how the story unfolded. Occasionally, we would get flashbacks from Lila Mae’s childhood, her education to be an Inspector, and her first year after moving to the big city. Her father’s ambitions played a role but she is never sentimental. Also fun, is how the story expects you to already have a respect for the importance due the profession of Elevator Inspection, and everything builds upon that. Why, surely everyone wants to grow up and be inspect elevators, right? Of course, we do! It is fascinating how subtle Whitehead creates this world. Language and atmosphere, with odd originality in characters and descriptions.

It’s just darn clever and beautifully expressed.

That the devil still walks the earth and architecture is no substitute for prayer, for cracked knees and desperate barter with the gods.”

What’s NOT so good: Whitehead has the ability to confound me in my wish to have a concrete sense of time and place. He is so vague and loose with any tie downs to such. Bugs me but it is also good for me, I think. Lila Mae takes awhile to warm up to – she’s prickly, and often is accused of being haughty but we know it is armor. I felt her loneliness but I wonder if she felt or recognized it herself.

As the elevator reaches the fifth floor landing, an orange octagon cartwheels into her mind’s frame. It hops up and down, incongruous with the annular aggression of the red spike. Cubes and parallelograms emerge around the eighth floor, but they’re satisfied with half -hearted little jigs and don’t disrupt the proceedings like the mischievous orange octagon. The octagon ricochets into the foreground, famished for attention. She knows what it is. The triad of helical buffers recedes farther from her, ten stories down at the dusty and dark floor of the well.

“I’m going to have to cite you for a faulty overspeed governor,” Lila Mae says.

“But you haven’t even looked at it,” the super says.

FINAL THOUGHTS: A quote inside the book jacket states,

“Whitehead artfully crosses back and forth over racial, political, and artistic borders to create a work of stunning depth, soulfulness, and originality, starring one of the most intriguing heroine in contemporary fiction.”

I would agree.

RATING:  Four slices of pie with extra whipped cream.

The mother thanks him, promises a pie.”


Copyright © 2007-2017. Care’s Online Book Club. All rights reserved. This post was originally posted by Care from Care’s Online Book Club.  It should not be reproduced without express written permission.

14 thoughts on “The Intuitionist

  1. >>>What’s NOT so good: Whitehead has the ability to confound me in my wish to have a concrete sense of time and place. He is so vague and loose with any tie downs to such.

    Yeah, this was my problem with Zone One, which made me think that Whitehead wasn’t for me. I liked The Underground Railroad, but I’ve suspected for a while that it was an outlier in Colson Whitehead’s oeuvre.

    1. I can deal if I am aware to ‘let it go’. I’ll try another Whitehead eventually. Three times an author will decide if a favorite or to avoid. I’m ambivalent about it, really.

    2. In Zone One there were sound reasons why you couldn’t know exactly when and where it was. There is satire intermixed with the science fiction in that one (which is why I loved it) and the point of satire is for the readers to go forth and make sure such things never happen in their future.

  2. I find it interesting that you, or anyone, prefers a concrete time and place. I like not having that because I find stories take on a more global quality when they do. The lack of limits in place and time bring us closer together in understanding life experiences in different cultures. As for the lack of specific time, sometimes I find books set in, say 1980, too specific. The specified date brings with it its own biases and expectations, so not having a date prevents that.

    What are your objections to the ambiguity? I am curious because it is so far from my preferences.

    1. I think I am OK with ambiguity if I am expecting it. But when some things seem to tie down to a place but the next sentence makes me wonder, I get a little lost. That was my problem with The Underground Railroad – I wanted to KNOW what year it was set but it just wasn’t set in any ‘year’. If I had known Cora was traveling through the entire slave experience and not one set exclusive to her time period, I would have relaxed into it. If relaxed is the right word. I would have been ready for that train ride more prepared.

      I don’t think I consider myself a reader that needs “setting specifity” (is that not a word?) but Whitehead is the first author that gives conflicting or nonconcrete clues; thus I get confused. Maybe I didn’t pick up on the correct clues.

      1. That makes sense to me. Did you realize that Cora was experiencing the entire slave experience while reading or only after? If during, did that change your opinion at all? If after, would you consider re-reading it now that you know that to see if you have the same feelings about the book? Inquiring minds want to know! 😉

        1. No, I did not ‘get’ TUR until I read all the loves it got during TOB. I do want to reread it someday.
          I like to go blind into books usually, but I would have had a better experience with TUR if I had known more (I only knew about the ‘real’ train and that is not a spoiler but only a small interesting detail, imo.)
          Like Lincoln in the Bardo, some books should have more pre-explanation.

    1. I don’t remember hearing about this book at all. I do recall some buzz for Sag Harbor but CW hasn’t been discussed much in my blogosphere.

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