From the Publisher
"The freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye."
Walter Kirn, Time
"Ingenious and starkly original...Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, bit if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heaing toward the upper floors."
The New York Times Book Review
"Magical. . . . The Intuitionist ranks alongside Catch-22, V, The Bluest Eye and other groundbreaking first novels. . . . Whitehead shares Heller's sense of the absurd, Pynchon's operatic expansiveness and Morrison's deconstruction of race and racism." San Francisco Chronicle
"The most engaging literary sleuthing you'll read this year. . . . What makes the novel so extraordinary is the ways in which Whitehead plays with notions of race."
"Whitehead's prose is graceful and often lyrical, and his elevator underworld is a complex, lovingly realized creation."
The New Yorker
"The Intuitionist is the story of a love affair with the steel and stone, machinery and architecture of the city. It's not a pretty love, but a working-class passion for the stench of humanity that its heroine, Lila Mae Watson, has made her own. But as always with love there is betrayal. This extraordinary novel is the first voice in a powerful chorus to come."
Wildly ambitious...a sly triumph.
Written in cool, impecable prose that cracks only occasionally, the novel should elevate Whitehead to the top ranks of younger writers.
Time Out New York
Lila Mae Watson would prefer to be as useful and unnoticed as the elevators she inspects, and often, as a "colored" woman in a city something like 1960 New York, she is. But as the second black, and the only woman, in the Elevator Guild, an organization as powerful and as laced with corruption as the big unions of the real New York, she just doesn't fit in. To make matters worse, she's an Intuitionist -- an elevator inspector who locates the defects in a machine not by examining its workings, but by closing her eyes and "communicating with the elevator on a non-material basis."
In the alternate New York of Colson Whitehead's gritty, brainy first novel, The Intuitionist, the elevator inspectors union is split into two factions. The upstart Intuitionists have their own candidate for Guild chair, and are intent on ousting the current chair, leader of the nuts-and-bolts Empiricists. When a brand-new elevator on Lila Mae's beat suddenly and inexplicably plummets 40 floors -- suffering a supposedly impossible "total freefall" -- Lila Mae gets dragged into the election year battle, and soon she's chasing after the lost notebooks of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton. Rumor has it that Fulton, author of the classic text Theoretical Elevators, had designed the perfect elevator, then hid his blueprints just before his death. Such a device would remake the topography of the city as radically as Otis' first lift, bringing on "the second elevation" and upsetting the Guild's delicate balance of powers.
One of the vexing side effects of reading a work of fiction as fresh as the The Intuitionist is a tendency to talk influences (in this case, Ralph Ellison and Thomas Pynchon by way of Walter Mosley). But what's most winning about Whitehead's novel is the way he combines flights of imagination and absurdity (Lila Mae's gruelingly intensive studies at the Institute for Vertical Transport) with keen observation (how easily she can hide in the midst of a drunken gathering of her co-workers -- she simply dons a maid's uniform and becomes invisible to them). Several scenes in The Intuitionist read like parodies, as when the child Lila Mae finds her father poring with boozy reverence over an elevator catalog in the middle of the night; her dad couldn't break the color barrier to become an inspector, but damned if his frustration doesn't become his daughter's determination to win that badge. Or when Whitehead depicts Intuitionist students discussing such philosophical matters as "the vertical imperative" and "The Dilemma of the Phantom Passenger," which asks "where the elevator is when it is not in service."
But for every laugh provoked by making the prosaic elevator the inspiration for melodramatic and high-minded musings, The Intuitionist offers passages of sardonic, unvarnished realism. Lila Mae's alienated journey through the Guild's old-school world of paunchy white men in regulation haircuts feels bruisingly convincing. And if the lofty metaphysics of Intuitionist theory sometimes wax silly, Whitehead's heroine never does. Smart, independent, lonely and proud, Lila Mae clings to Fulton's promise that "there is another world beyond this one," and to her own faith in the possibility of transcending the ugly struggle between the races. When Fulton turns out to have hidden more than just blueprints, she finds that faith profoundly challenged.
Whitehead doesn't just travel back and forth between irony and sincerity, between the naturalistic novel of race and the imaginative novel of ideas -- he simply occupies all territories at the same time. The boundaries separating those categories, which usually seem insuperable, fall away, like the walls, floor and ceiling shed by the passenger in Fulton's perfect elevator as it shoots past the 50th floor and into a state of pure vertical motion. After that, as Fulton puts it, "There is only the ride." -- Salon
Whether the subject is love or alienation, the invention of rich, new literary metaphors is difficult enough. When the subject is America, however, it's almost impossible. In The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead has solved the problem, coming up with the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. . . . Whitehead's fable is swift and pointed and by no means solely about race.
The freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and
Toni Morrision'sThe Bluest Eye
Extraordinary...the most engaging literary sleuthing you'll read this year.
Highly imaginative and stylish.
A very fine first novel....a parable, and a parody, of racial identity in a world that can't help but break down into two kinds of people.
...Ingenious and starkly original....an ambitious, wide-ranging exploration of racial struggle and the dynamics of social progress....it seems clear that Whitehead intends...to suggest...a new stage in the evolution of African-American social identity....Lila Mae can help usher in a new age...one that emphasizes not what the eye can see...but rather what the mind can imagine.
The New York Times Book Review
A novel is a building where language can happen. That definition...has been all but banished to small-press purgatory. So it's a wonder and a pleasure [to read] Colson Whitehead's splendid first novel...where nouns and characters, verbs and plot, sentences and setting are equally interesting, mutually reinforcing but also separate, visible.
Village Voice Literary Supplement
Reads like a pure feat of the imagination.
A dizzyingly-high-concept debut of genuine originality, despite its indebtedness to a specific source, ironically echoes and amusingly inverts Ralph Ellison's classic Invisible Man. In a deftly plotted mystery and quest tale that's also a teasing intellectual adventure, Whitehead traces the continuing education of Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport and thus first of her race and gender to be employed by the Department of Elevator Inspectors. In a "famous city" that appears to be a future New York, Lila Mae compiles a perfect safety record working as an "Intuitionist" inspector who, through meditation, "senses" the condition of the elevators she's assigned. But after an episode of "total freefall" in one of "her" elevators leads to an elaborate investigation, Lila Mae is drawn into conflict with one of the Elevator Guild's "Empiricists," those who, unlike Intuitionists, focus their attention on literal mechanical failures. Furthermore, it's an election year for the Guild, pitting Intuitionist candidate Orville Lever against crafty Empiricist Frank Chancre, who has surreptitiously enlisted the muscle of mobster Johnny Shush. Hoping to escape these distractions while proving herself innocent, Lila Mae goes "underground" and makes some dangerous discoveries about the ideas and the life of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton, a visionary known to have been working on a "black box" that would revolutionize elevator construction and alter the nature of urban life forever.
Lila Mae's odyssey involves her further with such mysterious characters as Fulton's former housemaid and lover, her circumspect colleague Pompey; a charmer namedNatchez, who claims he's Fulton's nephew, and sinister Internal Affairs investigator Bart Arbogast. Whitehead skillfully orchestrates these noirish particulars together with an enormity of technical-mechanical detail and resonant meditations on social and racial issues, bringing all into a many-leveled narrative equally effective as detective story and philosophical novel. Ralph Ellison would be proud.
Read an Excerpt
It's a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it's not built to fall this fast.
She doesn't know what to do with her eyes. The front door of the building is too scarred and gouged to look at, and the street behind her is improbably empty, as if the city had been evacuated and she's the only one who didn't hear about it. There is always the game at moments like this to distract her. She opens her leather field binder and props it on her chest. The game gets harder the farther back she goes. Most of the inspectors from the last decade or so are still with the Guild and are easy to identify: LMT, MG, BP, JW. So far she doesn't particularly like the men who have preceded her at 125 Walker. Martin Gruber chews with his mouth open and likes to juggle his glass eye. Big Billy Porter is one of the Old Dogs, and proud of it. On many occasions Lila Mae has returned to the Pit from an errand only to hear Big Billy Porter regaling the boys about the glory days of the Guild, before. While his comments are never specific, it is clear to everyone just what and who Big Billy is referring to in his croaking, muddy voice. Rebellious among the bureaucratic rows of the Pit, Big Billy's oak desk juts out into the aisle so he can seat his bulk directly beneath one of the ceiling fans. He says he overheats easily and on the hottest days of the summer his remaining hair slides away from how he's combed it, the strands easing into nautilus whorls. It's a slow process and watching it is like waiting for a new hour. But it happens eventually.
All the inspectors who have visited 125 Walker in the past have been Empiricists. As far as she can tell. When she gets fifteen years back in the record there are no more faces to put to the initials. She recognizes the initials from the inspection records of other elevators in other buildings but has never met the people they belong to. JM, for example, is also listed in the inspection record of the elevator Lila Mae departed just half an hour ago, and EH, she's learned over time, has a thing for worn guide shoes, something no one ever looks at except the real stickler types. Checking guide shoes is a losing proposition. Some of the initial men must be in the pictures along the walls of the Pit. The men in those pictures sport the regulation haircuts the Guild required back then, respectable haircuts fit for men of duty and responsibility. The haircuts are utilitarian mishaps that project honor, fidelity, brotherhood unto death. The barber shop two doors down from the Guild, the one that always has big band music coming from inside, used to specialize. Or so they say. Some of the younger inspectors have started wearing the haircut again. It's called a Safety. Lila Mae's hair parts in the middle and cups her round face like a thousand hungry fingers.
The light at this hour, on this street, is the secondhand gray of ghetto twilight, a dull mercury color. She rings the superintendent again and hears a tinny bleating sound. Down twenty years in the record she finds one of the treasures that make the game real: James Fulton and Frank Chancre inspected 125 Walker within six months of each other. From Lila Mae's vantage, it is easy to read into this coincidence the passing of the crown. Not clear why Fulton left his office to hit the field again, though. Twenty years ago he would have been Dean of the Institute and long past making the rounds of the buildings, ringing superintendents, waiting on worn and ugly stoops. Then she remembers Fulton liked to go into the field every now and again so he wouldn't forget. Fulton with his mahogany cane, rapping impatiently on one of the three windows set in the front door of 125 Walker. Perhaps they weren't cracked then. Perhaps he cracked them. Across from his initials the inspection record notes a problem with the limit switch, a 387. She recognizes the handwriting from Fulton's room at the Institute, from the tall wooden display cases where his most famous papers are kept behind glass, in controlled atmospheres.
As for Chancre, he would have been a young and rising inspector back then. A little thinner, fewer exploded capillaries in his nose. He wouldn't have been able to afford his double-breasted navy suits on a rookie's salary, but his position has changed since those days. Lila Mae sees Chancre swallowing the super's hands with his oversized mitts in faltering camaraderie. It takes a long time to become a politician, but he was born with the smile. You can't fake smiles like that. Nice building you got here, chum. Nice to see a man who takes pride in his craft. Sometimes you walk into these places, you never know what you're going to see, bless my heart. You want to say to yourself, how can people live like this, but then we are all dealt differently and you have to play what you're dealt. Back home, we . . . He gave 125 Walker a clean bill. Lots on his mind, lots on his mind.
The wind is trapped in one of Walker Street's secret nooks, pushing through, whistling. The elevator is an Arbo Smooth-Glide, popular with residential building contractors when 125 went up. Lila Mae remembers from an Institute class on elevator marketing that Arbo spent millions promoting the Smooth-Glide in the trades and at conventions. They were the first to understand the dark powers of the bikini. On a revolving platform festooned with red, white and blue streamers, slender fingers fan the air, summoning the contractors hither. The models have perfect American navels and the air is stuffy in the old convention hall. A placard overlooked for red-blooded distraction details in silver script Arbo's patented QuarterPoint CounterWeight System. Has this ever happened to you? You've just put the finishing touches on your latest assignment and are proud as a peacock to show off for your client. As you ride to the top floor, the Brand X elevator stops and refuses to budge. You won't be working with them anymore! Say goodbye to sticky, stubborn counterweights with the new Smooth-Glide Residential Elevator from Arbo. Over two million Arbo elevators are in use worldwide. Going up?
A bald head girdled by loose curls of red hair appears at the door's window. The man squints at Lila Mae and opens the door, hiding his body behind the gray metal. He leaves it to her to speak.
"Lila Mae Watson," she says. "I've come to inspect your elevator."
The man's lips arch up toward his nose and Lila Mae understands that he's never seen an elevator inspector like her before. Lila Mae has pinpointed a spot as the locus of metropolitan disaffection. A zero-point. It is situated in the heart of the city, on a streetcorner that clots with busy, milling citizens during the day and empties completely at night except for prostitutes and lost encyclopedia salesmen. It's a two-minute walk from the office. With that zero-point as reference, she can predict just how much suspicion, curiosity and anger she will rouse in her cases. 125 Walker is at the outer edges of the city, near the bank of the polluted river that keeps the skyscrapers at bay from the suburbs, and quite a distance from the streetcorner: He doesn't like her. "Let me see your badge," the man says, but Lila Mae's hand is already fishing in her jacket pocket. She flips open her identification and holds it up to the man's face. He doesn't bother to look at it. He just asked for effect.
The hallway smells of burning animal fat and obscure gravies boiling to slag. Half the ceiling lights are cracked open or missing. "Back here," he says. The superintendent seems to be melting as he leads Lila Mae across the grime-caulked black and white hexagonal tile. His bulbous head dissolves into shoulders, then spreads into a broad pool of torso and legs. "How come Jimmy didn't come this time?" the super asks. "Jimmy's good people." Lila Mae doesn't answer him. Dark oil streaks his forearms and clouds his green T-shirt. A door bangs open upstairs and a loud female voice yells something in the chafing tones reserved for disciplining children and pets.
The lumpy, pitted texture of the cab's door tells her that management has painted it over a few times, but Lila Mae still recognizes the unusually wide dimensions of an Arbo Smooth-Glide door. Taking their cue from the early days of passenger-response criticism, Arbo equipped their newest model with an oversized door to foster the illusion of space, to distract the passenger from what every passenger feels acutely about elevators. That they ride in a box on a rope in a pit. That they are in the void. If the super doesn't strip the old paint the next time he renovates, it will eventually impede the movement of the door. (Of course a lot of graffiti in this neighborhood.) Already the elevator door halts in its furrows when it opens. A violation waiting to be born, the nascent outlines of a 787. Lila Mae decides against saying anything to the super. It's not her job. "You'll want to start in the machine room, I guess," the super says. He's fixated on the ideal triangularity of Lila Mae's tie knot, its grid of purple and blue squares. The tie disappears near her bosom, gliding beneath the buttons of her dark blue suit.
Lila Mae does not answer him. She leans against the dorsal wall of the elevator and listens. 125 Walker is only twelve floors high, and the vibration of the idling drive doesn't diminish that much as it swims through the gritty loop of the diverting pulley, descends down the cables, navigates the suspension gear, and grasps the car. Lila Mae can feel the idling in her back. She hears the door operator click above her in the dark well and then the door shuts, halting a small degree as the strata of paint chafes. Three Gemco helical springs are standard-issue buffers on Arbo elevators. They wait fifteen feet below her like stalagmites. "Press twelve," Lila Mae orders the super. Even with her eyes closed she could have done it herself, but she's trying to concentrate on the vibrations massaging her back. She can almost see them now. This elevator's vibrations are resolving themselves in her mind as an aqua-blue cone. Her pen rests in her palm and her grip loosens. It might fall. She shuts out the sound of the super's breathing, which is a low rumble lilting into a wheeze at the ultimate convexity of his exhalation. That's noise. The elevator moves. The elevator moves upward in the well, toward the grunting in the machine room, and Lila Mae turns that into a picture, too. The ascension is a red spike circling around the blue cone, which doubles in size and wobbles as the elevator starts climbing. You don't pick the shapes and their behavior. Everyone has their own set of genies. Depends on how your brain works. Lila Mae has always had a thing for geometric forms. 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. No need to continue. Just before she opens her eyes she tries to think of what the super's expression must be. She doesn't come close, save for that peculiar arching of his lips, but that doesn't count because she already saw that from when he opened the front door. The super's eyes are two black lines that withdraw indistinguishably into the skein of his hieroglyphic squint. His lips push up so far that his nostrils seem to suck them in. "I'm going to have to cite you for a faulty overspeed governor," Lila Mae says. The door opens slowly in its track and the drive's idling vibration is full and strong, up here so close to the machine room.
"But you haven't even looked at it," the super says. "You haven't even seen it." He is confused, and tiny pricks of blood speckle his pink cheeks.
"I'm going to have to cite you for a faulty overspeed governor," Lila Mae repeats. She's removing the tiny screws from the glass inspection plate on the left anterior wall of the elevator. The side of her screwdriver reads, PROPERTY OF THE DEPARTMENT OF ELEVATOR INSPECTORS. "It catches every six meters or so," Lila Mae adds as she withdraws the inspection slip from beneath the glass. "If you want, I can get my handbook from the car and you can see the regulations for yourself."
"I don't want to look at the damn book," the super says. He runs his thumbs animatedly across his fingers as she signs the slip and replaces the plate. "I know what the book says. I want you to look at the damn thing yourself. It's running fine. You haven't even been upstairs."
"Nevertheless," Lila Mae says. She opens her field binder and writes her initials at the bottom of the ID column. Even from the twelfth floor, she can still hear the woman downstairs yelling at her children, or what Lila Mae supposes to be children. You never know these days.
"You aren't one of those voodoo inspectors, are you? Don't need to see anything, you just feel it, right? I heard Jimmy make jokes about you witch doctors."
She says, "Intuitionist." Lila Mae rubs the ballpoint of the pen to get the ink flowing. The W of her initials belongs to a ghost alphabet.
The super grins. "If that's the game you want to play," he says, "I guess you got me on the ropes." There are three twenty-dollar bills in his oily palm. He leans over to Lila Mae and places the money in her breast pocket. Pats it down. "I haven't ever seen a woman elevator inspector before, let alone a colored one, but I guess they teach you all the same tricks."
The door of apartment 12-A cracks behind Lila Mae. "What's all this noise in the hall?" a high, reedy voice asks. "Who's that hanging out there? What you want?"
The super pulls 12-A's door firmly shut and says, "You just mind your own business, Missus LaFleur. It's just me." He turns back to Lila Mae and smiles again. He sticks his tongue into the hole where his two front teeth used to be. Arbo didn't lie about their QuarterPoint CounterWeight System. It rarely fails. A regrettable incident in Atlanta kicked up a lot of fuss in the trades a few years back, but an inquiry later absolved Arbo of any wrongdoing. As they say. The model's overspeed governors are another matter, though, notoriously unreliable, and probability says their famous manufacturing defect should have emerged long ago. Sixty bucks is sixty bucks.
"You'll get a copy of the official citation in a few days in the mail, and it'll inform you how much the fine is," Lila Mae says. She writes 333 in 125 Walker's inspection record.
The super slaps the door of 12-A with his big hand. "But I just gave you sixty dollars! Nobody has ever squeezed me for more than sixty." He's having trouble keeping his trembling arms still at his chest. No, he wouldn't mind taking a swipe at her.
"You placed sixty dollars in my pocket. I don't think I implied by my behavior that I wanted you to bribe me, nor have I made any statement or gesture, such as an outstretched palm, for example, saying that I would change my report because you gave me money. If you want to give away your hard-earned money"Lila Mae waves her hand toward a concentration of graffiti"I see it as a curious, although in this case fortuitous, habit of yours that has nothing whatsoever to do with me. Or why I'm here." Lila Mae starts down the stairs. After riding elevators all day, she looks forward to walking down stairs. "If you want to try and take your sixty dollars off me, you're welcome to try, and if you want to challenge my findings and have another person double-check the overspeed governor, that's your right as a representative of this building. But I'm correct." Lila Mae abandons the super on the twelfth floor with the Arbo Smooth-Glide. The super cusses. She is right about the overspeed governor. She is never wrong.
She doesn't know yet.