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The Intuitionist Hardcover – Import, 29 December 1998

4.0 out of 5 stars 554 ratings

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Product description Review

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


"Highly imaginative and stylish."
Vanity Fair

"Whitehead's debut novel can claim a literary lineage that includes Orwell, Ellison, Vonnegut, and Pynchon, yet is it resoundingly original. . .The story is mesmerizing, but it is Whitehead's shrewd and sardonic humor and agile explications of the insidiousness of racism and the eternal conflict between the material and the spiritual that make this such a trenchant and accomplished novel."

"A dizzingly-high-concept debut of genuine originality, despite its indebtedness to a specific source, ironically echoes and amusingly inverts Ralph Ellison's classic
Invisible Man. . .A many-leveled narrative equally effective as a detective story and philosophical novel.  Ralph Ellison would be proud."
Kirkus Reviews

"Meaty and mythic. . .Whitehead has created a self-contained universe in this novel, complete with its own mythology and history. . .He has a completely original story to tell, and he tells it well, successfully intertwining multiple plot lines and keeping his reader intrigued from the outset."
Publishers Weekly

"Dark, smart, funny."

"An elegant, erudite take on the sci-fi staples of science vs. humanity and head vs. heart."

"Brilliant, funny, poetic. . .a complex mix of contemporary issues and the urban imagery of 40 years ago. . .The style [Whitehead] creates to portray this world is equally intricate and rich--a supple, jazzy instrument that can swing from deadpan satirical fantasy to a straight-ahead portrayal of the pain and stoicism of black people living in a ham-fisted white world, looking for the ultimate elevator that will take them up and out."
The Utne Reader

"Colson Whitehead's
The Intuitionist is an enormously accomplished first novel, a meditation on race and technology and imagination that is absolutely dazzling.  Dazzling too is his hero, Lila Mae Watson. . How great it would be if there were more like her in life; how wonderful that we have such a brave dame in art."
Brave Dames and Wimpettes by Susan Isaacs

The Intuitionist is the story of a love affair with the steel and stone, machinery and architecture of the city.  It's not a pretty love, but a working-class passion for the stench of humanity that its heroine, Lila Mae Watson, has made her own.  But as always with love there is betrayal.  This extraordinary novel is the first voice in a powerful chorus to come."
--Walter Mosley

"This splendid novel reads as though a stray line in Pynchon or Millhauser had been meticulously unfolded to reveal an entire world, one of spooky, stylish alternate-Americana, as rich and haunted as our own.  The care and confidence of the prose, the visionary metaphor beating like a heart at the center--these do not outweigh the poignance and humor, the human presence here.  
The Intuitionist rises someplace new, and very special."
--Jonathan Lethem

The Intuitionist is a fascinating novel, full of quirky insights and beautifully imagined characters."
--Gary Indiana

"A multilayered debut novel...
The Intuitionist reads like a pure feat of the imagination, elevated by...stylistic sorcery and a gnawing sense of the narrative's urban dislocation."
Village Voice Literary Supplement
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Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Doubleday; Anchor Books ed. edition (29 December 1998)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 272 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0385492995
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0385492997
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 454 g
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 15.24 x 2.54 x 22.23 cm
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.0 out of 5 stars 554 ratings

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Colson Whitehead is the author eight novels and two works on non-fiction, including The Underground Railroad, which received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston-Wright Award, and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel is being adapted by Barry Jenkins into a TV series for Amazon. Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys received the Pulitzer Prize, The Kirkus Prize, and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.

A recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

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Norman Housley
4.0 out of 5 stars Very impressive book, teeming with ideas
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4.0 out of 5 stars well written
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1.0 out of 5 stars A Big Disappointment
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5.0 out of 5 stars Keep writing, I will keep reading your books
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