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The Intuitionist: A Novel Paperback – January 4, 2000
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist wowed critics and readers everywhere and marked the debut of an important American writer. This marvellously inventive, genre-bending, noir-inflected novel, set in the curious world of elevator inspection, portrays a universe parallel to our own, where matters of morality, politics, and race reveal unexpected ironies.
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The time is uncertain, but it seems to run concurrently with that of The Maltese Falcon or Farewell My lovely. The dialog and the action seem to parallel a post great war mystery. You expect the desk clerks to be called Velma and the character cast is made up of thugs, patsies, crooks and seekers of the truth. The plot is a mystery – who caused the elevator in the newly christened Fanny Briggs building to fail?
Clearly, all of this is symbol. Elevators are the mechanisms of ascension. We’re moving to a higher plane led by Lila Mae. The main engineering texts are the volumes of Theoretical Elevators. This is a book without equations and light on the diagrams. The text is full of life philosophy largely relating to the human condition. Now, Lila Mae is building on this, taking us higher but in a different direction. Her science is “intuitive” more human than that of the old, mechanistic, dominantly white society.
There were a lot of really good set-ups in this novel that didn’t quite make it in the end. The period piece feel of the book was carried off well. Lila Mae was fairly well drawn, a mixture of hard and soft. The softness was that of the submissiveness Fanon attributed to colonial subjugation of black women. But there was hardness, a determination that was leading to elevation. Unfortunately, she is the only character with any depth.
There were a lot of running jokes, like the importance of elevator engineering, that kind of fell flat in the end. But the main problem was with Lila Mae. Nothing in her character suggests a real break with or improvement on existing social norms. There was nothing to get you to really root for her (apart from her position as “victim.”) So the whole read seemed to lack a real point in the end.
The novel is original and at the same time very familiar. It is familiar in that anyone who has watched television has seen the age old plot of the innocent person set up by the corrupt. The innocent must go on an underground quest to find out who and why they were set up. In this book, Lila Mae Watson, a black woman elevator inspector is the innocent, the patsy, and her race and gender and barrier breaking job of being the first black female in the field offer some evidence of why she was set-up in the free-fall of an elevator she had just inspected.
Beside being black and female, Lila Mae is an intuitionist who senses the problems with elevators rather than goes through complex checklists, which is the strategy of the empiricists. Like any mystery quest novel, Lila Mae meets many characters on her journey to prove her innocence. This is a new twist of social commentary integrated with the age old successful plotlines of Bogart detective films.