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The Intuitionist: A Novel by Colson…

The Intuitionist: A Novel (original 1999; edition 2000)

by Colson Whitehead

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Title:The Intuitionist: A Novel
Authors:Colson Whitehead
Info:Anchor (2000), Edition: 1st Anchor Books Ed, Paperback, 255 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead (1999)



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An odd novel set in a universe in which elevators seem to be the highest form of technology, and there are disputes between two schools of inspectors, the Intuitionists and the Empiricists. Lila Mae Watson, the city's first female black inspector, is being framed for an elevator crash designed to show up the Intuitionists.

It's kind of a whodunit about a search for lost blueprints from a visionary Intuitionist designer, with thugs and spys. Set in a city that's clearly New York, in a era when segregation is just ending. I'm not sure I got all the subtext. I liked its quirkiness, the alternate universe, but ultimately I was bored and disappointed. I think I missed its subtleties and metaphysics. Okay, elevators are a way to rise, and being an elevator inspector is a rise in status, but beyond that I got nothing. There are a couple of big revelations, one of them about people not being what they seem; I couldn't discern the significance of the other. ( )
  piemouth | Sep 19, 2013 |
It doesn't take long to realize that this book is about a parallel universe, a universe with a city similar to New York and a social class structure full of racism and union struggles. It is a parallel universe of gender inequity and stereotypes similar to our own. It is a parallel universe where ideologies begin to take on a life of their own, directing human thought and perception, until the ideologies are put to the test of reality. It is a good read. ( )
  SigmundFraud | Mar 20, 2013 |
Lila Mae Watson is the one! I loved this book, from start to finish it took the reader on an elevator ride to a world where things are different enough to open your mind to the previously unseen. Isn't that what a good book is supposed to do? Riding an elevator will never seem the same again. ( )
  deborahk | Feb 4, 2013 |
This was my introduction to Colson Whitehead and I was impressed. The Intuitionist takes place in a city (implicitly, New York) full of skyscrapers and other buildings requiring vertical transportation in the form of elevators. The time, never identified explicitly, is one when black people are called "colored" and integration is a current topic. The protagonist is Lila Mae Watson, an elevator inspector of the "Intuitionist" school. The Intuitionists practice an inspecting method by which they ride in an elevator and intuit the state of the elevator and its related systems. The competing school, the "Empiricists," insists upon traditional instrument-based verification of the condition of the elevator. Watson is the second black inspector and the first black female inspector in the city. The failure of an elevator the Lila Mae had inspected leads to a search for the roots of intuitionism. The result is a metaphysical meditation on the possibility of a perfect elevator. For those, like this reader, who are interested in ideas this is a great read and an auspicious start for the author. ( )
  jwhenderson | Dec 19, 2012 |
If asked to give a list of exciting professions, most people would likely think of things like spy, model or personal assistant to Jason Momoa or Scarlet Johansson; it seems unlikely that elevator safety inspector would make many lists, with the possible exception of the occasional elevator safety inspector who really love their job – and readers of Colson Whitehead’s debut novel The Intuitionist.

The novel’s protagonist is Lila Mae Watson, the first coloured female inspector to enter the Department of Elevator Inspection, and it is her we follow in close third person perspective through most of its events (although there are occasional switches to different points of view, as well as the occasional interspersed auctorial comment – just two of the many “yes, but not quite” moments that are scattered throughout the novel on all levels), said Lita Mae Watson, then, finds out just how unpleasantly exciting her job can become when an elevator she inspected and cleared has an accident and she is set up to take the fall for it. So she goes underground in an attempt to clear her name, and, while being pursued and threatened by all kinds of unsavoury types, uncovers a network of conspiracy and corruption that extends to the highest level of power… This is of course your archetypical noir plot – except that it isn’t. Not quite, anyway.

The world The Intuitionist is set in, appears strange, yet is strangely familiar. While the city where it takes place is (as far as I can remember) never named, it is quite obviously modelled after New York. The novel draws an obvious parallel between its elevator safety inspectors and the police force, it is populated with well-worn character types like the corrupt, power-hungry politician, the ruthless mafiosi, the idealistic journalists and a protagonist that doggedly searches for the truth, no matter what the obstacles; and finally, the plot with its mixture of violence, social criticism and existential melancholy will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a noir story or watched a noir movie. Does that mean that The Intuitionist is a crime novel in flimsy disguise? Well, kind of. But not really.

At least I have yet to come across a crime novel where one of the major plot points revolves around competing schools of epistemology. The conflicts between the Empiricist and Intuitionist schools of elevator safety inspection (based – more or less – on positivism and phenomenology, respectively) seems more like a gimmick at first (and application of phenomenological philosophy to elevator safety – “separate the elevatorness from the elevator” – makes for some hilarious moments in what is otherwise a very grim novel), but as the plot progresses and Whitehead gradually unfolds all of the metaphorical and allegorical implications, it becomes clear that there is more to it than meets the eye (which in itself constitutes one of the main thematic strands of the novel).

Also, while it is never explicitely stated, there is a strong retro vibe about The Intuitionist, a pervading if implicit sense that it takes place some time during the thirties of the twentieth centure, evoked by the noirish plot, the way the characters talk and the descriptive language which adds an additional level of patina to what it depicts – tinting them not so much in the sepia tones of nostalgic romanticisation, but depicting them in the stark black and white colours of a noir movie. Which is very much not a coincidence (and neither is that the various factions in the novel are chasing after a “black box” rather than a Maltese Falcon), for as removed as the world of The Intuitionist might seem from ours in some respects, there is at least one element they both share, and that is its discrimination of coloured people, the racism that Lila Mae Watson and other characters of the novel encounter at almost every step they make. The distance Whitehead puts between his novel and its readers turns out to be a distancing effect, a Brechtian Verfremdung (and note that Brecht wrote several of his best works during the thirties) that distorts our own, all too familiar world into recognisability.

The theme of racism radiates out into all levels of The Intuitionist, literal and figurative ones, and Whitehead spins a complex web of allegory and metaphor around that center, holding it all in a fragile, trembling balance. That he holds all of it together and that it does not come crashing down is mainly due to his intelligent, precise writing that still transmits the passion that glows in its core. It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel, and I am very curious to find out where Whitehead moved on from here.
2 vote Larou | Jan 23, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0385493002, Paperback)

Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead's odd, sly, and ultimately irresistible first novel. The setting is an unnamed though obviously New Yorkish high-rise city, the time less convincingly future than deliciously other, as it combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics and smoky working-class pubs. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical idea, and Lila Mae Watson, the city's first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.

Lila Mae's good ol' boy colleagues in the Department of Elevator Inspectors are understandably jealous of the flawless record that her natural intelligence and diligence have earned, and understandably delighted when Number Eleven in the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial "Intuitionist" method of ascertaining elevator safety. It is, after all, an election year in the Elevator Guild, and the Empiricists would do most anything to discredit the Intuitionist faction. Everyone on both sides assumes that Number Eleven was sabotaged and Lila Mae set up to take the fall. "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." Lila Mae's doom seems equally irreversible.

Whitehead evokes a world so utterly involving to its own denizens that outside reality does not impinge on its perfect solipsism. We the readers are taken hostage as Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents. Behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae's quest reveals the existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought, whose fate is mysteriously entwined with her own. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the Black Box, the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists will instantly be obsolescent. The social and economic implications are huge and the denouement is elegantly philosophical. Most impressive of all is the integrity of Whitehead's prose. Eschewing mere cleverness, resisting showoff word play, he somehow manages to strike a tone that's always funny, always fierce, and always entirely respectful of his characters and their world. May the god of second novels smile as broadly on him as did the god of firsts. --Joyce Thompson

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:18:38 -0400)

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An elevator inspector becomes the center of controversy when an elevator crashes. The inspector, Lila Mae Watson, is a black woman who inspects by intuition, as opposed to visual observation, and now she must prove her method was not at fault. A study of society's attitude to technology and a debut in fiction.… (more)

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