Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead 978-0-385-49299-7 Bantam Doubleday Dell 272 Pages; First Printing: January 1999

Reading Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist gives off this vibe the majority would not understand a black writer’s metaphysical exercise unless race becomes central to the narrative. Whitehead’s construct of a futuristic world is set in the past, though the year is not stated. It is shortly after the Civil Rights Movement, the onset of integration. The writing is technical, philosophical and quite heady. This holds true throughout the book, as Whitehead details the world of elevators, their inspection, their invention and future development. The primary thread is about Verticality – ascension and descent, and the two prevailing schools of elevator inspectors: Empiricists and Intuitionists. 

A third of the way through, the story takes a freefall as an elevator -- in a building named after a female slave, recently inspected by black female protagonist Lila Mae Watson -- crashes and none of its emergency braking mechanisms go into effect. Watson turns amateur sleuth to clear her name, only to find herself embroiled in big city politics with various factions searching for a mysterious black box that will reveal how to build the perfect elevator. Whitehead’s writing conveys he relished bringing down the elevator, the existing order cum structure, after showing he understands all of its mechanisms; thereby satisfying the Empiricists. The next test was whether he could bring the elevator back up the shaft simply through feel, as purported by the Intuitionists. This is where and why the introduction of race becomes critical. Whitehead gives a broad historical presentation of race relations but mainly as a roadblock. The Intuitionist is purposely laden with metaphors; the elevator stops on every floor and reaches way up to the top floors. Each floor represents a higher level of consciousness. Someday soon the perfect elevator will go even higher, but will race hinder the ability to reach these levels?

Recommendation: HIGHEST

Reviewed by Guichard Cadet