The Intuitionist

by Colson Whitehead

ISBN: 0385493002

The amazing thing about this novel is that is manages to create such interest and depth in such a small and tightly controlled universe: the world of of this novel consists entirely of the world of elevator inspectors.

That is right, elevator inspectors. The central figure in the novel is Lila Mae Watson, first female black elevator inspector. Whitehead uses Lila Mae and the mid-century urban grit of her environment to explore myths and metaphors of race, class, and verticality in this odd but compelling book. His characters expose and confront a series of social dichotomies: black/white, vertical/horizontal, empiricist/intuitionist, seen/unseen, knowing/believing.

It is hard to pull out a quote when there are so many moments in the story that grab you, but I will point to one because I think showing a small flavor of the prose is important:

Catastrophic accidents are a-million-in-a-million occurences, not so much what happens very seldom but what happens when you subtract what happens all the time. They are, historically, good or bad omens, depending on the time or place, urging in reform, a quest for universal standards of elevator maintenance, or instructing the dull and plodding citizens of modernity that there is a power beyond rationality. That the devil still walks the earth and architecture is no substitute for prayer, for cracked knees and desperate barter with the gods.

This is an unusual and smart book: highly recommended.

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