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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.
The Intuitionist is the story of bias and racism in the world and a profession one would not think of - city elevator inspection. A woman of color becomes the first woman of color to get a badge as a City Inspector when new elevators were going up and down all over the city.
Lila Mae is an Intuitionist, which has a 10 percent higher accuracy in evaluating elevators as opposed to an Empiricist. Intuitionists are a negative group according to the guild, who don't believe you can communicate with an elevator.
One of Lila Mae's client's mechanism does a dead drop which leads to a significant professional upheaval. She turns into a sleuth to find the cause of the accident, hiding from the public and her cohorts.
In her investigation is a tale of corruption, deceit, bias, white male domination of a profession, and union battles. Where her story ends is a surprise, the reader will applaud.
Articulate prose with racial allegories. Metaphors that will delight the reader, and images relating to a mundane subject as an elevator that is disturbing but understandable.
Intuitionist is an excellent read for the thinking mind.
This is the story of Lila Mae Watson, an engineer of highest caliber working in the highest expression of the art – elevator engineering. She is a government official in the most prestigious government office - she is an elevator inspector. She is a black (or “colored,” as the author calls her.) She is the first black woman to achieve such status.
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.
This was one of the books recommended by the Great American Read program on PBS. I can see why it made their list. The descriptions written in the book, of the weather, of character histories, of actions that can't be described here, are very well written and can be very intense. The vocabulary used and writing style is a step above cozy mysteries and light hearted romance, and quite a welcome change. I totally recommend this book.