There it is, printed right on the front cover: “The freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.” That’s impossibly high praise for any novel to live up to. I did not quite realize what I was getting myself into with this surreal, fantasy noir (some even classify it as science fiction) and it took me some time to catch my bearings. Once I got in step with the rhythm of Colson Whitehead’s world (perhaps New York City of the mid-20th century) I enjoyed The Intuitionist.
The grand metaphorical relationship between elevator and upward racial progress is initially rather obvious. However, as the story develops this metaphor becomes cumbersome and difficult to uncurl. The fact that it is omnipresent throughout the tale does not help matters much. But rather than getting bogged down with my struggles to interpret Whitehead’s Big Idea, I delighted in becoming acquainted with some of the smaller aspects of the story.
Particularly fascinating to me was the character Pompey. It is Pompey, the only other black member of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, who Lila Mae blames for being directly responsible for her setup. She thinks him an Uncle Tom and is suspicious of him from the start. The lone black figures in the office are adversarial and impersonal rather than partners on the rise up.
I enjoyed the way in which Lila Mae slips into the party of co-workers undetected simply by wearing a maid costume. Her drunken co-workers, probably more than willing to look right through her anyway, do not notice Lila Mae at all in her simple disguise. Whitehead underlines the alienation of Lila Mae perfectly in this segment.
Also of interest is the fact that the most successful black character in the tale, James Fulton, had the ability to pass as a white man. I point it out because this idea is the central focus of two celebrated novels in the African-American literary canon that I highly recommend, James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Nella Larsen’s Passing.
The one major gripe I have with the book is the fact that Lila Mae is as cardboard a character as I have come across in some time--though I'd be willing to entertain the idea that this was intentional. I consider it rather adventurous for a young man to pen his first novel with a female character as the central figure. I know some writers who would find this opinion laughable, but I think it takes a special talent to pull it off. Now, obviously Whitehead is an immensely skilled and witty writer, extraordinary sentences abound throughout The Intuitionist. I only wish he were as generous with Lila Mae’s characterization as he is with his prose.
Bryan, you mentioned that I wouldn’t believe what you were doing when you read this book. Were you investigating an elevator catastrophe cover-up for the Queens Chronicle? Do tell.
This book is certainly ripe for discussion. Let us proceed.