Tuesday, May 19, 2015

THE INTUITIONIST by Colson Whitehead

The story began in an unnamed noir metropolis; it was simply referred to as the most famous city in the world, but the reader will notice that Whitehead used an allegorical New York. The time setting was never identified too, although we can infer through the mention of black people as colored and that certain car models populate the metro.

THE INTUITIONIST, in general, is about the achievement of vertical expansion through elevators. Passenger elevator was invented by Elisha Graves Otis in the 1850s, who was one of the primary people (then) that helped civilization advance to the modern age. Elevators, after all, made it possible for the erection of high rise buildings and undeniably the dominant symbol of victory in these present times.

At the center of the story is Lila Mae Watson, the first black female Elevator Inspector. She is something of an outsider among her co-workers in the department –she is female, black and an Intuitionist. The Intuitionists practice an intuiting method of inspection, by merely feeling the elevator ride and listening to its movements.  Meanwhile, the opposing Empiricist school graduates use the traditional technical verification of the elevators with instruments and such. In spite of the prejudices, Lila was able to perform professionally and managed to maintain a spotless record.

However, a day after Lila’s inspection of the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, elevator no.11 went into a complete free fall. Politicians and people from the Elevator Guild were quick enough to jump in and blame Intuitionism. Lila sensed that this incident is more than a mere accident, and it may very well end her career as an inspector. So, she began her own investigation. It didn't take long ‘til Lila was sucked into complicated political squabbles.

In the last few days she has learned how to read, like a slave does, one forbidden word at a time.

As much as the book is about elevators and the discovery of the black box, the perfect elevator, it is Lila Mae Watson that captured my attention. Her willpower and resilience are her best traits, and it was fascinating to follow her investigation. She was a small fry from the beginning of the story with little friends to aide her, but her stubborn resolve to fight both racism and sexism will not budge.

We do not need cities and buildings; it is the fear of the dark that compels us to erect them instinctively, like insects. Perspective is the foot-soldier of relativity. –James Fulton

With its nostalgic sense of the past, Whitehead submerged the readers into a fictional history blended seamlessly that it was easy to suspend which is fact and what is created. It was easy to visualize a civilization that could have been our own. Change and modernization are visible in every direction nowadays, it is not so difficult to be intrigued by Whitehead’s what-if scenarios and thematic elements. This is an enjoyable read; detailed, yet easy on the palate. 

Book details:
Title:  The Intuitionist
Author:  Colson Whitehead
Publication:  Doubleday; 1st edition (December 29, 1998)
Genre:  Speculative Fiction
Rating:   ★★★★


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