The Intuitionist (1999)

by Colson Whitehead

In an unspecified time (probably the mid-20th-century) in an unspecified famous city (probably New York), a conflict rages between two camps of elevator inspectors: Intuitionists, who inspect elevators by sensing their vibrations, and Empiricists, who use traditional inspection methods. The Intuitionists have a better accuracy rate and are gaining legitimacy.

Obviously, more than intuition is needed to inspect an elevator, so Whitehead’s book has to be seen as metaphor. Empiricists are mechanistic, cold representatives of the past, while Intuitionists are humanistic representatives of the future.

The novel’s protagonist, a young woman named Lila Mae, is an Intuitionist. She is the first Black and first woman inspector. Her track record is stellar until an elevator falls just before an important Elevator Guild election. Was it sabotage?

Hoping to prove herself blameless, Lila Mae goes underground to search for the mysterious “black box” of Intuitionism’s late founder, James Fulton. If found, the box might revolutionize not only elevator construction but also urban life. In the course of her investigation, Lila Mae discovers that Fulton was an African American who passed for white.

Whitehead’s first novel can be read as a detective story, a metaphor, and a meditation on race. It was an impressive debut from a writer who was only 29.


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