Friday, February 25, 2005


The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead, Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, 1998

I hate Colson Whitehead.

Absolutely, completely, from head to foot stark-raving feel-my-blood-boil animosity comes over me when I consider him as a writer. Just thinking his name makes the hairs on my neck rise up as if flight-or-fight instinct were preparing me. Just seeing it in print causes my hands to tremble, my feet to sweat, my pulse to rise, and my eyes to go over a hideously, sickly shade of green.

At the mere age of twenty-nine, Whitehead published his first book, the incredibly stunning debut, The Intuitionist, a book that so completely re-envisions the world from such an original perspective that it is as if he had recreated the entire planet from scratch. As a writer myself, I have to say that this is the kind of thing that would be acceptable from an old hand, a pro at the field, someone twice my age like Thomas Pynchon, or someone long dead like James Joyce. But to have to sit and find this book written by a man who was younger than I am now, but not much, well, that hurts.

For those of you out there who don’t own The Intuitionist (or Whitehead’s follow up John Henry Days, his third book The Colossus of New York, or the collected Get Your War On, to which he added the introduction) unplug your phone, your radio, your CB, your computer, get your ass in the car, and go to the bookstore pronto! This is writing how it is meant to read, writing fresh, vibrant, writing that remakes the world anew.

For the uninformed, The Intuitionist takes place in a never-named city one must assume is New York. The year is never stated, but with the frequent use of “colored” to describe African-Americans, and with the novel’s protagonist Lila Mae Watson being the first black female elevator inspector in history, we are given to understand that it is approximately the mid 1900s. All technology approximates this view of time, with a magazine reporter using a typewriter.

The time and the city, though, are almost utterly irrelevant as The Intuitionist takes place in what almost amounts to a self-contained world of elevator inspectors. It’s election time and the two parties making up the inspection schools of belief are battling to place their man in the Chair of the Guild position. The majority party consists of Empiricists, those who “work by the book and dutifully check for striations on the winch cable and such,” and the minority are the Intuitionists who “are simply able to enter the elevator cab in question, meditate, and intuit any defects.”

What starts the novel, what propels us is this line “It’s a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it’s not built to fall this fast.” The last elevator Lila Mae inspected has just collapsed, her disgrace a bomb, we learn, lobbed by the Empiricists against the Intuitionists. “So complete is Number Eleven’s ruin,” writes Whitehead, “that there’s nothing left but the sound of the crash, rising in the shaft, a fall in opposite: a soul.”

The accusation of crime has sent Lila Mae running, but she’s taken in by the Intuitionists and hidden, used by them to try to both clear the Intuitionists as a whole, and to find the missing papers of the founder of their school. In this tense time, someone has found the fabled missing diary of the founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton, and has been selectively releasing excerpts to the media and the heads of both schools.

What makes these revelations meaningful is that Fulton’s first volume of Theoretical Elevators was a classic, embraced by both schools, while his second book laid the foundations for Intuitionism and his newer writings promised to create a “black box” elevator, the perfect lift, an invention that would revolutionize the practice of elevator construction, as well as city living. Just as Elisha Otis’ invention of the elevator forever altered cityscapes, Fulton’s promises that and more. The revelation of the existence of Fulton’s third volume would change everything and has the potential to upset the election, already predicted to fall to the Empiricist leader, Frank Chancre.

Whitehead writes about these political and arcane elevator ephemera with a worldview as if nothing else mattered. He creates a world so solipstically involved that everything is viewed the prism of elevator inspection and invention. Everyone in that world behaves accordingly. And this narrowness of focus, this closing off of the external world, allows Whitehead to fabricate a universe in which everything is reformulated, the familiar parts of our world are twisted ever so slightly so that what was old to us is seen through someone else’s new eyes.

The vision of this world is so completely radically thought through that Whitehead gives us selections from Fulton’s previous volumes, bits of political speechifying by Chancre, and flashbacks to Intuitionist based classes. Here’s a longish, but telling sample:

“The Dilemma of the Phantom Passenger asks what happens when the passenger who has engaged the call button departs, whether he changed his mind and took the stairs or caught an up-tending car when he wanted to go down because he did not feel like waiting. It asks what happens to the elevator he summoned.”

Professor McKean said, “That’s right. Fulton asks this question and leaves it to the reader, abruptly proceeding on to the psychology of the Door Close button. How do you think Fulton would answer his question?”

“Obviously,” Gorse [an Empiricist] said, “the elevator arrives, the doors open for the standard loading time, and then the doors close. That’s it.”

Johnson, the burly freshman who always sat next to Lila Mae, ignored Gorse and offered in his stumbling voice, “I think that Fulton would say that the elevator arrives but the doors do not open. If there’s no need for the doors to open, then the vertical imperative does not apply.”

Professor McKean nodded. “Any other theories?”

Bernard, who could usually be relied upon to provide a sensible response, said, “For one thing, the vertical imperative applies to the elevator’s will, and doesn’t apply to passengers. I think what Fulton was referring to in this section was the ‘index of being’ — where the elevator is when it is not in service. If, as the index of being tells us, the elevator does not exist when there is no freight, human or otherwise, then I think in this case the doors open and the elevator rises, but only for the loading time. Once the doors close, the elevator returns to nonbeing — ‘the eternal quiescence’ — until called into service again.” Bernard sat back in his metal chair, satisfied.

Professor McKean said simply, “That’s good. Anyone else?”

Lila Mae waited for someone to give her an answer. No one did. Lila Mae cleared her throat and said in a thin voice, “Fulton is trying to trick the reader. An elevator doesn’t exist without its freight. If there’s no one to get on, the elevator remains in quiescence. The elevator and the passenger need each other.”

Professor McKean nodded quickly and then inquired of his pupil, “And if we set up a film camera in the hallway to see what would happen, what would we see when we developed the film, Watson?”

Lila Mae met his eyes. “By leaving the camera there, you’ve created what Fulton calls ‘the expectation of freight.’ The camera is a passenger who declines to get on the elevator, not a phantom passenger. The film would record that the doors open, the elevator waits, and then the doors close.”

And the rest of the book is likewise so thoroughly thought through, so vividly imagined. The language is quirkily poetic, oddly dispassionate at times, evocative without being obvious, emotional without the barest scintilla of sentimentality. I even love the font the book is written in, though the volume lacks the font biography that has become common in other novels.

Whitehead also manages to delicately but assuredly write about race relations. While in hiding after the elevator fall, Lila Mae infiltrates a dinner party for all the elevator inspectors, becoming invisible to all the white men there just by donning a maid’s uniform. “They see colored skin and a servant’s uniform.” Whitehead fills the picture by tying in the hidden life of James Fulton; the exact nature of his relation to his housekeeper; Lila Mae’s youth; and the exacting, competitive, and hateful relation between Lila Mae and Pompey, the first black male inspector. When Lila Mae upbraids Pompey for his Step’n Fetchit subservience, his answer is savage:

[Y]ou will never, ever know what hell they put me through. You think you had it bad? You have no idea. And it was because I did it first that you’re here now. All my life I wanted to be an elevator inspector. That’s all I wanted to be. And I got it. I was the first colored man to get a Department badge. They made shit of what I wanted and made me eat it. You had it easy, snot-nose kid that you are, because of me. Because of what I did for you.

And so this is why I hate Colson Whitehead. His first novel was brilliant, mind-bending, immediately captured me, and put me in that enviable state: you want to read faster, to have more, while at the same time you want to read slower and savor it all. This is too good for a first novel; it shames the rest of us fledgling writers with its perfection and its bravura display of talent. Such things are simply not fair, such things eat at me with jealousy.

I hope he writes lots more.

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