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Like Whitehead’s two Pulitzer prize winners, this novel centres around the experience of African-Americans. It is set around 1960 and captures that period beautifully. It is brilliantly written, densely plotted and absolutely full of ideas about race, technological and societal change, and the tension between altruism and ambition. Its only defect is that it’s almost too complex for its own good, and the protagonist spends a lot of time trying to establish who her friends and enemies are. Whitehead’s inventiveness, and the ease with which he plays with different literary genres, remind me of David Mitchell. Most importantly, his writing is both elegant and wonderfully resonant. 4.5
More intriguing than enjoyable, I can't declare it a favourite. However I did like the exploration of the gap between the empirical view of the world and those (like me) who find themselves reaching for a deeper understanding of the world that we are all an intricate part of.
Other reviewers and the description of the novel in the listing reveals that this is the story of a parallel universe dominated by the world of elevators. The main character, Lila Mae Watson is the first female Elevator Inspector and one of the first blacks to achieve this distinction. The time period is somewhere in the past, maybe the 30's or 40's, when we saw the growth of cities and the rise of the industrial age. Blacks certainly had no equality and the author makes the racism palpable in the characters that comprise the plot. Like Lila Mae, this novel doesn't fit into a nice genre slot but blends elements of several genres in a way that is sometimes confusing and perplexing. Satirical elements overlap analogy and the elevator metaphor can stand for religion, upward mobility, politics, corporate life and race relations. The writing is always original and distinctive, full of dark humor and surprising juxtapositions. The writing is certainly original and inventive which makes this novel often puzzling, thought provoking, quirky, and ultimately very entertaining if the reader doesn't simply get lost in this rich mix.
Having no idea what this novel was about I almost quit on page six. Many of the words seemed to be jibberish and the thoughts senseless. But curiosity took over and I forged on. It’s a wonderful study of elevators, human nature and imagination.
Uniquely designed within the world of elevators, but a strong voice hidden throughout speaking to the rising world coupled with the shadowed suggestions of what may come. Brilliantly boring couching of world within world.
It does not take long for the reader to realize that this book is about a parallel universe, a universe with a city comparable to New York City and a social class structure full of racism and union struggles. It is a parallel universe of gender inequity and stereotypes similar to our own. It is a parallel universe where ideologies begin to take on a life of their own, directing human thought and perception, until the ideologies are put to the test of reality. I don't mean to be mysterious here but this is in many ways a mystery story, a classic story of the set-up, the innocent must prove their innocence in a dark and unfair world.
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.
This is an enjoyable read rather than a must read; and a 3.5 rather than a 4. Whitehead takes us to the not-so-distant and not-so-different future of a major city where, however, elevators enjoy cult status. Quirky and creative. His protagonist gets involved in an elevator accident, and we follow her trying to puzzle it out. This strand was just interesting enough to keep me reading. But somehow something is missing, and something left me cold.
The Intuitionist is a very unusual science fiction cum social satire novel. It is well worth reading. Although it appears dated in some respects, it is actually as relevant today as it was when initially published.