The Short Version: Lila Mae Watson is the first colored female elevator inspector in history – and she’s an Intuitionist, maybe the best they’ve ever had. But when a brand new elevator that she inspected goes into total freefall two weeks before the Elevator Guild elections, she must go on the run to prove her good name. What she discovers along the way might change everything…
The Review: It is almost shocking to pick up a debut novel from an author you’ve known for a while and see their voice there, present, fully formed at such an early stage of their career. But so it is with Colson Whitehead. This is an audacious debut, made all the more auspicious when you know what’s coming for Whitehead over the course of the next decade and a half – but even if you were reading The Intuitionist in a vacuum, you would be able to recognize the sheer talent wielding the pen. It’s that kind of novel.
Whitehead, like a handful of his contemporaries, is a reader’s author: he crosses genres and plays with both form and content with the ease of someone whose bookshelves almost undoubtedly have a brilliant melange of titles crossing them. This is, when distilled down, a brilliant noir novel – all the more brilliant for giving its characters vivid and dynamic interior lives without losing the smoky cool that the genre requires – but it also features touches of classic speculative fiction (you sense more than see Bradbury, Butler, and le Guin around the edges every once in awhile) and James Baldwin-esque social commentary. It is also laugh-out-loud hilarious at times; Whitehead’s gift for wry and dry turns of phrase is just as vivid here as it is in later works like The Noble Hustle and Zone One. In fact, this novel had me stopping friends (and more frequently than I’m sure she appreciated, my girlfriend, often while she was trying to read something herself) to read them a few lines – and then the next few, or something a paragraph later, because that was just as funny too.
There’s a delightful innovation to Whitehead’s storytelling, too: the idea that there are two competing types of elevator inspectors, one more rigorous and by the book and the other a little more mystical. It’s the sort of trope we see in detective stories all the time, but shifting us just to the side of that genre allows the entire concept to spring fresh. Perhaps the best thing to be said about this book (the best thing that can be said about any book?) is that it will make you see the world differently: I found myself in an elevator at work yesterday, looking at the inspection certificate and wondering “Empiricist or Intuitionist?” This has also been a well-timed read as far as my office environment goes: one of our two elevators has just come back online, completely rebuilt and overhauled, after some six months out of service.
Aside from the gripping plotting and the delightful voice, though, a reader can’t appreciate this novel without deeply admiring Whitehead’s commentary on race and class. Some moments are more obvious and overt – a short scene featuring an elevator inspector coming to inspect Lila Mae’s father’s elevator in an all-white department store down South – but many build from a slow ripple, vibrating into something larger over time. When, some two-thirds of the way through the novel, Lila Mae must infiltrate the annual “Funicular Follies” (a variety show/pageant/dinner celebrating the Inspectors Guild), Whitehead lets the wire snap and whip all over the place – and the reader can do nothing but watch the emotional destruction ensue. Lila Mae doesn’t seem altogether fazed by it (for reasons obvious to the reader) but that doesn’t stop the entire tour-du-force sequence from making the reader’s skin crawl. The novel may be set in the past (it sits in a vague warp of time that could be as early as the 1920s or as late as the 1950s), but that past is way closer these days than anyone expected it to be.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. What I wouldn’t give to pick this book up in 1999 and get in on the ground floor, as it were, of Colson Whitehead. His prose here, even at the outset of his career, dances and delights; his storytelling is gifted and compelling; his eye is as keen and striking as it is all these years later. This is a masterful debut, a masterful novel, and a masterful story – one that kept a smile on my face every time I thought about it, every time I picked it up, even if the sequences I read were harrowing and horrid at times, because I was just damned happy to be reading this book. I can’t think of too many other authors who take such joy in storytelling and I’m glad to see that it’s been true of Colson’s work from the very beginning. Time to go pick up John Henry Days and Apex Hides the Hurt – for now, I must truly be a completist.