Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Colton Whitehead, _The Intuitionist_

HIS FIRST, FROM 1999--I picked this up years ago, but you know how it goes. For whatever reason, I only started reading this after reading Underground Railroad. My instincts were sound in picking it up, though, because it's brilliant.

As with Railroad, we seem be in an alternate, similar-but-not-identical United States, in a city a lot like New York, roughly about the time integration is beginning to happen. The atmosphere is basic noir, but instead of a murder, we have an elevator accident, and instead of a detective, we have an elevator inspector.

Clever--even more clever, though, is the Pynchonesque world of elevator inspection that Whitehead creates, with its own history, institutions, terms of art, factions, publications (Lift magazine), and rival philosophies (the Empiricists and the Intuitionists), and sought-after lost manuscripts. The novel's McGuffin is a notebook containing drafts for the never-published third volume of Fulton's Theoretical Elevators, which might contain designs for the astonishing "black box," the next elevator. The samples Whitehead provides of Fulton's texts amaze: a hybrid of quantum physics, the pre-Socratics, and Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle.

Even more impressive than that, though, is the way Whitehead incorporates the thematics of race. It's as simple as taking the metaphor of "lifting up the race" or "still I rise" and making it literal, which then gives him room to make it metaphorical again in a fresh, invigorating way.

All that and a terrific protagonist, the grounded-yet-soaring Lila Mae Watson, whose conversations with Fulton's housekeeper enable The Intuitionist to pass the Bechdel test. Classic noirish revelations and betrayals keep the plot percolating, and the novel's style dazzles--more so than did that of Railroad, actually, I would say. Maybe as a first-time novelist, Whitehead gave himself more room to show off as a writer.  I didn't mind a bit.

No comments: