Sometime last year I read The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s speculative historical fictional piece which asks what if that railroad were a railroad, and underground? That premise opened up into a very present-regarding look at how people and social structures work (or don’t) under oppressive conditions. It also had a sense of the uncanny about it – that though the premise was absurd its descriptions felt visceral and real.
So I thought I’d read something else by Whitehead, and found The Intuitionist. If you tore the cover off of this book, and I read it in some kind of blind taste-test situation, I am quite sure I would have insisted that the first 50 pages had been written by David Foster Wallace. The back cover mentions Pynchon, but Wallace is a much more obvious similiarity. This is a book that renders a secret subculture of elevator inspectors, set in an ambiguously midcentury, art-deco, Gotham-like metropolis. Think The Hudsucker Proxy meets The Pale King, DFW’s posthumous testament to boredom and OCD at a regional IRS processing center. The archness of the opening pages was clever; there is something gratifying about parody of academic disciplines that don’t exist. A work on “ideal elevators” is excerpted throughout this relatively slim volume, centering on Dalton, a figure who sounds like the later Wittgenstein of Elevator Studies, a field Whitehead amuses himself (and this reader) through imagining the contours of.
Where this book parts ways with Wallace (or Thomas Pynchon), though, is its willingness to situate its characters within a racial context – something neither of those authors ever bothers to work through. David Foster Wallace, so far as I know, only meaningfully engages with race in one essay, Authority and American Usage, and there, seems almost entirely to miss the point and spin his wheels in a kind of obsessive fixation with white language, a pretty strange moment of Whitesplaining, which, though honest, mars the overall success of an otherwise brilliant essay.
Here, though, Lila Mae Watson, Whitehead’s protagonist, is most definitely black, “colored” as the book has it. She’s one of just a couple of black employees who have ever worked in the Department, and in ways I didn’t fully comprehend, this fact about her is at the root of the mystery that comprises the bulk of this book. It sort of drifts along with a noir-ish whodunnit involving PI’s and muckraking journalists, and there are plenty of flashbacks to Lila Mae’s earlier life in the south. Lila Mae is an “intuitionist,” which means that unlike the rival “empiricists,” she inspects elevators through visualization, focus and, well, intuition. When an elevator she has recently inspected plummets rapidly from a high floor, injuring several dignitaries, intuitionism, and the fact that she is black, become convenient scapegoats for powerful elevator-industry moneyed interests.
The whole text reads like a jumble, jumping from setting to setting without very much guidance at all- I spent a lot of time lost in that jumble. This may be because I read it over too long of a stretch, too little at a time. So though the back cover asserts that this book is a devastating allegory about racism in America, I honestly did not get that. This may be one of those books that I recognize, if I read it again, I would get much more out of it, though I’m not sure I will.