The Intuitionist

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It is a time of calamity in a major metropolitan city's Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. There are two warring factions within the department: the Empiricists, who work by the book and dutifully check for striations on the winch cable and such; and the Intuitionists, who are simply able to enter the elevator cab in question, meditate, and intuit any defects. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and, ...
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Overview

It is a time of calamity in a major metropolitan city's Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. There are two warring factions within the department: the Empiricists, who work by the book and dutifully check for striations on the winch cable and such; and the Intuitionists, who are simply able to enter the elevator cab in question, meditate, and intuit any defects. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and, it just so happens, has the highest accuracy rate in the entire department. But when an elevator in a new city building goes into total freefall on Lila Mae's watch, chaos ensues. It's an election year in the Elevator Guild, and the good-old-boy Empiricists would love nothing more than to assign the blame to an Intuitionist. But Lila Mae is never wrong. The sudden appearance of excerpts from the lost notebooks of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton, has also caused quite a stir. The notebooks describe Fulton's work on the "black box," a perfect elevator that could reinvent the city as radically as the first passenger elevator did when patented by Elisha Otis in the nineteenth century. When Lila Mae goes underground to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for the portions of the notebooks that are still missing and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.
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Editorial Reviews

Ben Greenman
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
Laura Miller
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

Walter Kirn
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.
— Time Magazine
Time
The freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrision'sThe Bluest Eye
Veronica Chambers
Extraordinary...the most engaging literary sleuthing you'll read this year.
— Newsweek
Vanity Fair
Highly imaginative and stylish.
GQ
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.
Gary Krist
...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
Newsday
Wildly ambitious...a sly triumph.
From The Critics
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.
Kirkus Reviews
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.

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."
Newsweek

"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."
—Walter Mosley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788743238
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 1/7/2002
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 7 cassettes, 585 minutes

Meet the Author

Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead was born in New York City in 1969. His journalism has appeared in Vibe, Spin, Newsday, and The Village Voice, where he was a television columnist. A graduate of Harvard College, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Biography

Born in 1969 and raised in Manhattan, Colson Whitehead received his undergraduate degree from Harvard. After graduation, he went to work for the Village Voice as a book , television, and music reviewer.

Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award. In 2001, he published John Henry Days, a startlingly original retelling of the famous story from American folklore. The novel received several honors and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In 2003, a collection of his essays, The Colossus of New York, was named a New York Times Notable Book of the year.

Whitehead's writing continues to attract awards, rave reviews, and a devoted, avid readership. In between books, he produces reviews, essays, short stories, and cultural commentary for a number of distinguished publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Harper's, and Granta. He is the recipient of a coveted MacArthur Fellowship (dubbed the "genius grant") , a Whiting Writers Award, and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers

Good To Know

In our interview, Colson Whitehead shared some fascinating facts about himself:

"Where do I get my ideas? Usually I come across some strange fact in a book, or article, or tv show and think, That's weird, wouldn't it be kooky if...?"

"I like to write in the nude -- I find the gentle breezes tickle the fine hairs of creativity."

"Here are some of the things I like: staying in the house all day, screening phone calls, keeping the shades drawn. Deglazing. Oh, how I love to deglaze."

"Here's what I dislike: performance art, people who walk slowly in front of me, romantic comedies, panel discussions."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 6, 1969
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, NY
    1. Education:
      Harvard College, BA in English & American Literature
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

DOWN


Part ONE


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 Mac 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.


* * *

All of the Department's cars are algae green and shine like algae, thanks to the diligent ministrations of the motor pool. On the night of his inauguration Chancre gripped the lectern with his sausage fingers and announced his Ten Point Plan. The gold badge of his office hung over his shoulders by a long, patriotic ribbon. "Department vehicles," he thundered, "must be kept in a condition befitting the Department." To much applause in the dim banquet room of the Albatross Hotel. Those seated at the long oval tables, gathered around Mrs. Chancre's unholy floral arrangements, easily translated Point Number Seven to the more succinct "Those colored boys better put a shine on those cars." One of the mechanics, Jimmy, has a secret crush on Lila Mae. Not completely secret: Lila Mae's sedan is the only one that gets vacuumed daily, and each morning when she leaves the garage for the field the rearview mirror has been adjusted from the night shift's contortions, to just the way she likes it. Jimmy is a slender character among the burly crew of the motor pool, and the youngest. The calluses on his hands are still tiny pebbles in his flesh.

    The traffic at quitting time is a bother. Radio station WCAM equips men with binoculars and positions them at strategic overpasses to describe the gnarls and tangles. Lila Mae is never able to differentiate these men from the meandering isolates who linger at the margins of freeways. All of them make obscure, furtive gestures, all share a certain stooped posture that says they lack substantive reasons for being where they are, at the side of the road. Impossible to distinguish a walkie-talkie from a bottle of cheap wine at such distances.

    They don't have alibis, Lila Mae appraises the men at the side of the road.

    Her sedan limps through black glue. The WCAM sentry warns of an accident up ahead: A schoolbus has overturned, and as the passing commuters rubberneck and bless themselves, the traffic clots.

    Over here, honks a woman in a red compact. The light trilling of her car horn reveals its foreign birth, cribside cooing in Mien tongues. Lila Mae thinks car horns work backward: they don't prod and urge the laggard ahead but summon those behind, come up, follow me. Lila Mae listens to the sporadic summons, listens to the news reports of WCAM, the red brake lights smoldering on the road ahead. Each of the announcer's words have the routine elegance, the blank purity Lila Mae associates with geometry. The announcer says that a low-pressure system is rolling east. The announcer says that there's been an accident at the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. An elevator has fallen. Now we're cooking.

    Lila Mae turns on her Department radio and hears the dispatcher call her inspector's code. "Come in, Z34. Report Zulu-three-four."

    "This is Z34 reporting to base," Lila Mae says.

    "Why haven't you reported back, Z34?" Contrary to prevailing notions, the elevator inspector dispatch room is not filled with long consoles staffed by an able company who furiously plug and unplug wires from myriad inputs, busily routing. The dispatch room is a small box on the top floor of the office and there's only one person on duty at a time. It is very neat and has no windows. Craig's on dispatch now, and in Lila Mae's imagination he is a skinny man with brown hair who withers in his revolving chair, dressed in suspendered slacks and a sleeveless undershirt. She's never seen a dispatcher, and she's only seen their room once, on her first day of work. He must have been in the bathroom, or making coffee.

    "I was on a call," Lila Mae responds. "125 Walker. I just stepped in the car." No one is going to catch her in that lie. Lila Mae always turns off the radio when she's finished for the day. Occasionally one of the night shift calls in sick and Craig wants her to fill in for a few hours. Until the city and the Department work out their overtime policies there's no way Lila Mae is going to fill in for the night shift. If you haven't killed your hangover by six o'clock, you should take your lumps, is what she thinks.

    "You're to report back to HQ immediately," Craig says. Then he adds, "Zulu,thirty-four."

    "What's this crap about the Briggs building?" Lila Mae asks.

    "You're to report back here immediately, Z34. Chancre wants to talk to you. And I don't think I have to quote you Department regs on profanity over city frequencies. Dispatch out."

    Lila Mae returns to WCAM, hoping for more details. For some reason Craig's being a hardass, and that's not good. She considers steering over to the shoulder to bypass the traffic, brandishing her inspector credentials should a policeman stop her. But the police and the elevator inspectors have a difficult past, and it's doubtful a cop would let her off the hook, even for city business. Of course the city has never answered Chancre's repeated requests for sirens. No one outside the Guild seems to think they're necessary for some reason. Over the radio, one of the WCAM sentries ahead comments on how long it's taking the emergency techs to remove the children from the schoolbus.

    Lila Mae once delivered an oral report on Fanny Briggs in the third grade. Fanny Briggs was in the newer encyclopedias. Some even had her picture. Fanny Briggs looked tired in the marginalia; her eyelids drooped and her jowls oozed down from her cheekbones. Lila Mae stood in front of Ms. Parker's third-grade class and trembled as she started her report. She preferred to fade into the back rows, next to the rabbit cages, beneath the awkward pastels of the spring art project. There she was at Ms. Parker's desk, and her index cards shook in her tiny hands. "Fanny Briggs was a slave who taught herself how to read." One time a radio program featured Dorothy Beechum, the most famous colored actress in country, reading parts of Fanny Brigg's account of her escape North. Lila Mae's mother called her into the drawing room. Lila Mae's legs dangled over her mother's lap as she leaned toward the brown mesh of the radio speaker. The actress's voice was iron and strong and did not fail to summon applause from the more liberal quarters of her audience, who murmured about noble struggle. Tiny particles of darkness pressed beyond the cracked, wheaty mesh of the speaker, the kind of unsettling darkness Lila Mae would later associate with the elevator well. Of course she'd do her oral report on Fanny Briggs. Who else was there?

    No much progress in this traffic.

    The times are changing. In a city with an increasingly vocal colored population — who are not above staging tiresome demonstrations for the lowlier tabloids, or throwing tomatoes and rotten cabbages during otherwise perfectly orchestrated speeches and rallies — it only makes sense to name the new municipal building after one of their heroes. The Mayor is not stupid; you don't become the ruler of a city this large and insane by being stupid. The Mayor is shrewd and understands that this city is not a Southern city, it is not an old money city or a new money city but the most famous city in the world, and the rules are different here. The new municipal building has been named the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, and there have been few complaints, and fewer tomatoes.

    When Lila Mae was assigned the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, she thought nothing of it. It made sense that it would be either her or Pompey, the only two colored inspectors in the Department. Chancre's no fool. There are, after all, election years in the Elevator Guild too, and this is one of them, and all sorts of unexpected things have been happening. The Department-wide $1.25 raise, for example, which according to Chancre really adds up to a pretty penny after a while. Not that the elevator inspectors, civil-servant to the core despite their maverick reputations and occasionally flashy antics, needed to be convinced of the importance of a $1.25 raise. A government job is a government job, whether it's inspecting elevators or railroad cars full of hanging meat, and anything that brings their salaries into closer proportion to their contributions to the American good are accepted cheerfully, election-year ploy or no. Same thing with the screwdrivers. When a memo circulating soon after the raises announced that the new screwdrivers were on their way, few cared that the Guild Chair was so naked in his attempt to score points with the electorate. For the new screwdrivers were quite beautiful. Ever since the city granted license to the Department, bulky and ungainly screwdrivers had poked and bulged in the jacket pockets of the elevator inspectors, completely ruining any attempts at dapperness and savoir faire. It's difficult to look official and imposing while listing to one side. The new screwdrivers have mother-of-pearl handles and heads the exact width of an inspection-plate screw. They fold out like jackknives and lend themselves to baroque fantasies about spies and secret missions. And who can argue with that?

    So when the word spread that Lila Mae had been assigned the 18-deep elevator stack in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building (18-deep!), a career-making case for any inspector, few were surprised and whatever ground Chancre lost among the Old Dogs of the Guild was more than compensated for by the goodwill generated by the raise and the new mother-of-pearl jackknife screwdrivers. Lila Mae knew when she got the assignment that it was meant to draw attention from Chancre's opponent in the race for the Guild Chair, the liberal Orville Lever, who apparently thinks that only Intuitionists are capable of building coalitions, shaking hands with fundamentally different people, etc. Lila Mae (who, by the way, is still not making much headway in the evening traffic) may be an Intuitionist, but she is a colored woman, which is more to the point. Chancre's assistant left a note on her desk: Your good service won't be forgotten after the election. As if she needed to be bribed with a vague promise of promotion (and probably a lie anyway). It's her job. She's taken an oath and such things are to be taken seriously. Lila Mae held the note in her small hands, and even though she did not look up from her desk she knew that all of them, the Old Dogs and the New Guys in their retrograde Safety haircuts, were looking at her. The way the gossip flows in the Pit (Lila Mae is situated quite far downstream), they probably knew she got the case before she did. Probably skinny Ned, that vapor, that meandering cumulus masquerading as a man, sentenced to desk duty after the infamous Johnson Towers debacle, talked to a guy who talked to a guy in Chancre's inner circle and the word came down: the colored gal gets the job. Not any of them, not Pompey. There are no surprises in election years, just a bit more static.

    And here's Chancre now, arms struts at the tails of his signature double-breasted suit, twenty feet tall on a billboard for the United Elevator Co. Lila Mae's car creeps through the bottleneck at the entrance to the tunnel so there's no missing him. No more honking for this glum procession — they can see the tunnel now, and there is always the mandatory period of pensive anticipation on entering the tunnel. ALL SAFE declares the copy across his feet, a play on Otis's famous declaration at the 1853 Crystal Palace Exposition. The reference doesn't mean much to the people in the cars around Lila Mae — -elevator ads probably only register in civilian heads as a dim affirmation of modernity, happy progress to be taken for granted and subconsciously cherished — but Otis's phrase is the hoist pulling her and her fellow inspectors out of bed each morning. The sacred motto.

    Even long observers of the mysterious ways of corporate vanity are hard-pressed to understand the sudden ubiquity of elevator ads. In addition to billboards like the one towering over Lila Mae fight now, the elevator industry's advertisements line park benches, adorn the buses and subways of the city's transit system, brace the outfield walls of baseball stadiums, bright non sequiturs. Other places, too. One time before the start of a double feature at her favorite movie house — the Marquee on Twenty-third Street, notorious among those in the know for its free popcorn refills — 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, never mind that the frictionless drive in question is just American's old 240-60 drive in a smart new housing. It's a relatively recent phenomenon, the vocality of the international short-range vertical transport industry, and there's no one to explain it. How much Chancre makes in endorsements each year is anyone's guess, but it goes without saying that he has a lot riding on his reelection to Guild Chair. Just look at him up there. So far Lila Mae thinks her role in the campaign is limited to window dressing — -evidence for the new, progressive face of the Elevator Guild, and by extension, city government. She doesn't know yet.

    She's almost inside the tunnel when WCAM finally decides to update the situation at the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. The yellow tiles inside the tunnel glisten and Lila Mae sees a long throat strangled by mucus. In his geometric voice, so full of planes, WCAM's radio announcer says that Chancre and the Mayor will be holding a press conference to discuss what transpired at the new municipal building early this afternoon. But before he can say something more, something tangible that Lila Mac can use to prepare herself, the tunnel eats the transmission. Like that. Then there's just the agitated scratch of static inside her sedan and the earnest humming of multiple tires on the tunnel floor outside. Near silence, to better contemplate the engineering marvel they travel through, the age of miracles they live in. The air is poisonous.

    Something happened. It was her case. Lila Mac drums her fingers on the steering wheel and relives her call to the Briggs building the day before. Those looking for a correlative to Fanny Briggs's powerful, lumpy body in the shape of the building dedicated to her will have to bear in mind the will to squat that roosts in the soul of every city architect. Government buildings are generally squat rather than tall, presumably to better accommodate deep file drawers of triplicate ephemera. So it has been for generations. But who can resist the seductions of elevators these days, those stepping stones to Heaven, which make relentless verticality so alluring? While the architects understand that the future is up, the future is in how high you can go, it is difficult to shake old habits. Habits clamp down on the ankle and resist all entreaties, no matter how logical. As it is in politics, the only victor in the end was ugly compromise. The Fanny Briggs Memorial Building hunkers down on the northern edge of Federal Plaza in the renovated section of downtown, burly and squat for five floors before launching into space with another forty stories of pure, unsullied steel. The net effect is chrysalid, a photograph of a glass insect emerging from a stone cocoon. When Lila Mae first walked up the broad stone steps of the building, she looked up at the monolith above and felt a trembling instant of vertigo: It was a big responsibility. The mandatory Latinate motto was engraved above the entrance.

    Lila Mac is outside the tunnel now and can't think of what she did wrong. She needs a plan.

    Keep cool, Lila Mae.

(Continues...)

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Ok, here's my opinion for what it's worth

    My local B&N didn't have any of Whitehead's books in stock, so I had to get this from the library. I was curious after Esquire magazine all but sainted the guy.

    I'm about halfway through, and it's not bad. Not great, but not bad. To be frank, it's not worth the praise that's been heaped on it, and I suspect the author is garnering a lot of this because he's a young, good looking African-American author. There's a million great books out there by great unknown authors and Mr. Whitehead's work is on par with a lot of those. Not better or worse. I think this is one of those authors that the Starbuck's crowd likes to be seen reading. "Oh, you're reading Colson Whitehead? How's your mocca-latte-frappawhatever?"

    Read it because it's a decent book written about (of all things) elevator inspectors, but enjoy it because it manages to go deeper than that, and who doesn't wonder about those sorts of things?

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2007

    Going Up?

    I greatly enjoyed the parts of this book that discussed elevator theory (I have never before thought so much about an elevator). Having read this book I would really love to get a tour of the inner workings of an elevator. The ending, however, was not very satisfying and the book took a disappointing twist from theory and politics to mystery.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 11, 2006

    Could have been better

    Well written but it wasn't one of those books that you just couldn't put down. Sections of the book were funny, but they were few and far inbetween. However, I do believe this book makes a good 'group discussion' book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2006

    I'm confused

    The reviews make this out like a present-day Invisible Man...I don't see it. The allegory seems heavy-handed and obvious, yet in the end still doesn't lead to any meaningful message. As a novel, it also just isn't very likable. Lila Mae, the supposed 'intutitionist', is so cold and cerebral that it is difficult to feel any empathy with her. The plot is convoluted and poorly explained, and the rhythmic language is annoying, not evocative.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2006

    This Could Have Been Wonderful

    Starts out tough but promising - the middle verges on brilliance - ends with a depressing fizzle. Oh, this book was on track to really SAY something. What could have been a unique and much-discussed commentary on human nature & spirituality was just another novel.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2001

    Going Up

    I must admit that I have sometimes wondered, while waiting to reach my floor, about the elevator inspectors, that list of signatures and dates that is supposed to assure us that we won't plunge to our deaths. Colson Whitehead's first novel, The Intuitionist, is about these folks, in a sort of alternate City where elevators are indeed big business, with lobbyists and billboards and everything. The inspector in question is Lila Mae Watson, the city's first female, and second black, inspector. At the beginning she's framed for an elevator accident -- not only because she's a minority, but also because she's an Intuitionist. The department, and the industry, is split by a struggle between the Empricisits, who examine elevators, and the Intuitionists, who, well, intuit what's wrong. Funny thing is, the Intuitionists have a higher accuracy rate. If this sounds like a heavy handed allegory, it's not. Whitehead plays with the intersections of race, gender, and rationalism, and this is definitely a book that's about more than it's about. But The Intuitionist reads like a noir novel, if Sam Spade were given to mystical ruminations on elevators. It's both thoughtful and a good read: what more do you want from a first novel?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2001

    The Future

    Colson Whitehead is one a few young writers out there that provides hope for America's literary future. The Intuitionist is wise and quirky and humorous, all while also providing a skewed look at race and gender in America. Yes, there's a little bit of Raplh Ellison in him, except Whitehead has a better since of humor. And yes, there's a little bit of Don Dellilo in him, but Whitehead is fresher, less pretensious. There may even be a little bit of Tony Morrison in his writing, although this young author seems calm in his approach. He's not trying to live up to these comparisons. He's just doing it by producing original, interesting writing. Man, if only more young authors had as much genuine talent. Get this book. Whether you love it or not you'll know you're in the presence of a new voice that'll last.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2001

    Extraordinarily intelligent and well written first novel

    I can't believe nobody else has reviewed this yet -- perhaps because of the slightly lower status of this website as a bookstore -- but this book is simultaneously funny and tragic, human and fantastical, satisfying and yet leaving the reader wanting more. Colson Whitehead is poised to become one of the finest and most celebrated young authors in America. Wake up, people.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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