Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Ellen Wernecke: No sooner do we meet Lila Mae Watson in the opening pages of The Intuitionist than we are seeing her reflected in the eyes of someone who judges her to be different, and doesn’t like what he sees. Her initials don’t belong on the inspection panel, but more importantly, she doesn’t look the part. At her first inspection, the super even points out, “I haven’t ever seen a woman elevator inspector before, let alone a colored one,” before attempting to bribe her just like he would any of her colleagues.
As a protagonist, Lila Mae is both fascinating and frustrating to me: willfully obtuse and stubborn, she mistrusts everyone around her except the one man she should: Natchez. I wanted her to succeed, but if I were sitting at the desk next to her I don’t think she’d want my help, and I’d probably resent her for not wanting it. Whitehead doles out her background in scenes so brief, they’re practically snapshots—the student at the library, looking for the source of the one lonely light; the high-school girl on a first (and last) date; the gullible new city resident taken in by a cosmetics salesman. In her memories, she is always left alone at the end of any anecdote. How much of her loneliness is self-inflicted, and how much of it could she change if she wanted? On the other hand, the people with whom she is expected to sympathize because they’re the same race—Pompey, Mrs. Rogers—can’t relate to her at all, and resent her and the rest of the world for lumping them together.
In another author’s hands, for another character, her framing might serve as a warning for those who would buck the established order. I don’t see it that way. I think as readers, we’re supposed to feel a little frustrated with her inflexibility, the stubbornness that allows her the measure of control that people take from her every day. But I wonder if she couldn’t have forestalled the end of her career by being just a little more curious and a little more open. Did you find yourself sympathizing with Lila Mae more or less throughout the book, and were you surprised by the way she handled her accusation and the subsequent investigation?
Leonard Pierce: Lila Mae's complexity defied the easy sympathy we have for more conventional protagonists, and I think she's built that way. It's not hard to figure out that race is one of the book's most dominant themes, and in Lila Mae, Whitehead has given us one of the most fascinating African-American characters in modern fiction, one that, like Bigger Thomas, reflects a multitude of social perceptions of blacks while not allowing us the easy out of being purely sympathetic and easily identifiable.
Whitehead takes a very big risk, I think, right off the bat by allying Lila Mae with the Intuitionists. In a lot of ways, Lila Mae is a manifestation of the modern conception of the sellout, the black person who "acts white": recognizing that she will already face huge amounts of prejudice within her chosen occupation simply by dint of her race (and gender), she chooses to suppress, or at least sublimate, all the qualities that might make the surface signifiers of race and gender more pronounced. She doesn't play the Tom like Pompey; she doesn't socialize with other inspectors or cozy up to men; she dresses, speaks, and acts conservatively. Basically, she does all she can to deflect any attempt to attract criticism from racist and sexist elements in the Department of Elevator Inspectors, to use her as an example of why blacks and women should be kept out.
And yet she is an Intuitionist. Her skill, her passion, her aptitude are irrevocably tied—or so she thinks, anyway—to the more liberal, less rational approach to elevator inspection. She has her doubts about it in a political sense, as she begins to see how the Intuitionists use her as a campaign issue, but for much of the book, she doesn't question the belief system itself. She's an extremely prickly character, equally dedicated to her work and to her beliefs, determined to make progress in the system, but doing so by a rigorous, sometimes off-putting self-denial. She, like Jackie Robinson (to me, an obvious antecedent), is in an impossible position: In order to do what she's best at, she must brutally suppress her true self, swallow all the abuse and scorn while still fighting to succeed. This can be frustrating, sure; I don't think she's enormously likeable, but even in her darkest hours, she demands our respect.
Todd VanDerWerff: Lila Mae is certainly a frustrating figure. One of the problems that has long faced Hollywood in getting a Jackie Robinson biopic off the ground (aside from the fact that the money men are notoriously skittish about biopics of famous African-American figures, but that's a subject for another time) is the fact that so much of his conflict is hard to dramatize. Just looked at from the outside, he seems like the perfect man, the guy who integrated the Major Leagues because he was able to bear all of the abuse like some sort of saint. But his internal struggle is massively compelling, and that's much harder to depict onscreen. On the other hand, a novel is a natural place to depict that kind of internal struggle, and that's what I think Whitehead is up to here, as you pointed out, Leonard.
The first member of a minority to crack any establishment previously dominated by the majority has the weird onus of having to be somehow better than everyone else hanging over them, and that onus seems to drive Lila Mae throughout the novel, though Whitehead rarely spells this out for hopefully perceptive readers. We catch glimpses of the sorts of passions that might drive her, of just how much she loves those elevators and what they represent, but those things are all frustratingly tamped down in favor of just doing her job as close to perfectly as she can. I mentioned yesterday that she has a 100 percent success rate because she has to have that rate, and I think that's a view that colors the book. The other people she works with may not respect her as a person, but they all seem a little in awe of her success.
I'm most intrigued by how people who've just met her seem to deal with her, and by how Chuck, her one friend at the office, deals with her. I kind of thought Chuck was a missed opportunity, a character who could have had more shading around his edges. He seems to grasp that the best ways to move forward are occasionally gradual, and I wondered at times if his friendship with Lila Mae was meant to be beneficial to him (in the sense that seeming to be more liberal and "with it" would help him in his professorial dreams). But we get so little of him that these questions mostly went unanswered. I'm just as impressed by the way that as the book goes along, people who meet Lila Mae for the first time seem to be a little in awe of her. In particular, I'm taken with the long scene where she discusses what she knows with Ben Urich (another character the book could have done more with), who seems impressed by how much she's sussed out already. I do find Lila Mae a little frustrating as the central character of the narrative, but I think the approach of showing her primarily through other people's reactions almost works.
Tasha Robinson: I flat-out loved Lila Mae. I have a soft spot in my heart already for stubborn, uncompromising, unapologetic women, and for underdogs and bully-victims in general. She combines all these things into one laser-focused protagonist, one who’s highly competent and knowledgeable in her specialized field, but perhaps not the smartest person in the world, and certainly not the best-connected or luckiest. In other words, she’s a noir hero, a unique take on the old Chandlerian gumshoe, bullheadedly tromping around town trying to track down leads.
The one quibble I had with her was that I wish Whitehead had allowed us a little deeper into her head. At times, I felt she was being left intentionally blank to make it easier for readers to map their own expectations and desires on her—in other words, to make her a stronger symbol. While I mentioned yesterday that I didn’t catch the central elevator-as-racial-uplift metaphor that rules over the book, at least not until Whitehead spelled it out, I saw her from the beginning as symbolic of a particular type of black social upward movement: The kind that holds white liberal guilt in about the same contempt as bigots, and wants to succeed solely on its own merit, without help or handouts, in a spirit of colorblind equality. We’re set up to respect this attitude more than Pompey’s Uncle Tom behavior (though we do get to see that there’s a great deal more to that behavior than Lila guessed), or Mrs. Rogers’ withdrawal from the world; I don’t think there are any doubts where Whitehead’s sympathies lie. But it sometimes makes Lila more symbol than person.
For instance, I would really like to know more about what was going through her head during her romantic liaisons, both with Freeport the salesman and with Grady Jr., the male friend of her youth. Ellen describes her as a naïve new city-dweller taken in by Freeport, but it seems to me that Lila Mae knows exactly what she wants in that encounter, and gets it; with Grady Jr., she similarly knows what she wants, but doesn’t make it clear enough to him, and as a result, doesn’t get it. Which may lead to her being more direct with Freeport, but she doesn’t really express all that much to either of them. It seems more as if both of them are, like us, seeing her as a blank and mapping their will on her. And Grady Jr. wrongly presumes she’s a sweet virgin who would turn him down if he pressed, so he withdraws from her. Whereas Freeport seemingly sees her as more experienced and willing because that’s what he wants. Throughout the book, Lila Mae often lets people get away with seeing her however they want; it’s almost like a victory for her when they do. Sometimes it’s directly to her advantage, as when she’s mistaken for a servant at the Follies and ends up in a perfect position to spy, or when the super at the beginning assumes she’s a shakedown artist like her fellow inspectors, and gives her $60, which she calmly walks off with.
At other times, it works to her disadvantage, as when Mrs. Rogers assumes she’s another Tom currying favor with the whites by coming to shake Mrs. Rogers down for Fulton’s notebooks. And yet she never says anything to disabuse Mrs. Rogers of that impression; until she comes back with her theory about Fulton’s intent, Lila Mae never reveals much about herself or her real intentions to Mrs. Rogers, or tries to get the older woman on her side. Because that would be asking for something—confidences, a favor—and she’s seemingly too proud and stubborn to ask anyone for anything, whether it’s asking Grady for the second kiss she wants, or asking Mrs. Rogers to trust her. Her pressing Charlie for helpful favors by the end of the book—trading on his attraction for her—comes across as a huge unbending, an entirely new thing for her.
So I wish Whitehead had given us more of an idea of what was going on in her head at all these moments. Maybe because she’s such a blank, I’m doing my own projecting here; maybe there are other reasons entirely for her silence. Maybe she’s just socially awkward. Maybe I’m buying into a stereotype. If nothing else, I would have liked to have known how it felt for her to be in her position; it’s no surprise that she rarely betrays emotion to the judgmental, racist outside world, but surely she could trust the reader with just a few confidences.
Instead, she trusts Natchez, because she’s smitten with him, and from the beginning, she wants something out of him, even if it’s only more of his handsome company. And that’s nearly her undoing. Wanting someone to like her leaves her vulnerable, and revealing her desire for him, if only by unbending and trying to draw him into conversation, lets us and him know that there’s something behind the mask. That dynamic alone would have reeled me in, even if I didn’t like her as a character. When a character who won’t let herself ask for anything starts needing things badly—not just Natchez, but information, answers, friends, and allies—how could I not be riveted?