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The Intuitionist: Corruption and the city

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: I hadn’t read Martin Dressler when I chose The Intuitionist as my pick for Wrapped Up In Books, but I think in a way, they complement each other in their visions of the same, or at least very similar, cities. (Whitehead’s chosen city is never named in the book, true, but I think it’s more like New York City than not.) But as an entrepreneur, Martin is willfully ignorant of the bureaucracy and the politics of the city around him—if invited to join a political machine, he wouldn’t—whereas for Lila Mae and her fellow elevator inspectors, the bureaucracy is everything. We’re told toward the end of the book that going to work for one of the manufacturers is considered a major step down for Institute graduates, even though (as we also find out) those companies are also deeply invested in the workings of the public Department.

From the way Lila Mae reacts to her coworkers and the bar where they congregate, it’s clear she has chosen to stay as far out of the factions and internal politics of the Department as possible—but they find her anyway. If not immediately after the fall of Number Eleven, then soon after, as she accepts the help of the Intuitionists and agrees to visit Mrs. Rogers on their behalf. Was it naïve of her to expect that she could stay out entirely? Possibly, as the beneficiary of an election-year position, but when she’s drawn in (or at least believes she is), it ends up far worse than she would have agreed to.

The scene I think provides the most critical touchstone for Lila Mae’s relationship with Department politics is the Funicular Follies sequence, in the chapter that begins, “There are no kings these days, in these cities. Just moles.” Whitehead switches back and forth from short declarative sentences to rhapsodies about the cigars and the drinks, none of which Lila Mae is available to enjoy because she’s disguised (all too successfully) as a waitress. And her expected payoff is to see her coworkers laughing at a blackface act so offensive as to completely silence her.

Compared to that offense, the disgrace of going to work for one of the private elevator companies seems like a relief, where Lila Mae could be anonymous by her own choosing. What did you think of the book’s commentary on politics and “the way things work” in the Department? Could the system have been fixed, or were those who chose to opt out, like James Fulton himself, making the wiser decision?

Leonard Pierce:  I loved Colson Whitehead’s depiction of his nameless city.  Obviously it paralleled New York, but for me, it was simply a skillful tableau of what film noir fans call "The City"—the nameless anyplace, the generic, universal metropolis which stands in for all urban landscapes filled with corruption, crime, and venal human endeavor.  Though there are noir influences in The Intuitionist, it's not really a noir novel, a detective story, or a crime drama, but it does cleverly borrow from those genres the depiction of a huge city, detached from its human residents and inculcating alienation and resentment, a vast intertwined network of corruption.

As far as your question goes, I liked the book's depiction of politics, both specifically (the political power plays and internecine warfare that too often paralyze any large bureaucracy) and generally (the entrenched conservative faction opposing any change or progress against the maverick liberals a bit too willing to exploit minorities for political gain). It was somewhat broadly drawn in an overarching sense, but I think that was necessary to make its finer, subtler points about race and gender.  James Fulton's story is one of a man who deliberately chose (or, maybe more to the point, was able) to opt out of the system, but he didn't necessarily believe that it was impossible to change. It's just that his attempt to change it, as often happens, got away from him, turned into something else, and became another tool in the hands of the establishment.

By necessity, I think, Whitehead had to limit himself to showing us mainly the government and its various ins and outs in order to tell the story he wanted to tell.  I suspect, however, given his sensibilities, that if he were to continue the story of Lila Mae Watson, we would learn that the private sector is just as treacherous and unforgiving as the public one. The shadings of the world he created demand it.

Todd VanDerWerff: If there was something I liked about The Intuitionist more than any other aspect, it was its creation of an intricate, highly thought-out setting that was more or less our world, but ever so slightly off, in ways that were always highly intriguing and interesting. I said yesterday that we learned just as much about Lila Mae from how other people reacted to her, but I wonder if we don't learn quite a bit about her purely due to the world she arises in. The city of the novel (which I'll agree is probably New York City) offers a rough counterpoint to the woman at its center; both are hard to get to know, and both keep secrets buried deep beneath otherwise taciturn surfaces. I, too, appreciated the seeming connections to Martin Dressler, which I read as a celebration of what the city is capable of, of the city as a kind of utopia, while this was an examination—like the best noir tales—of the way the city grinds down people into dust.

I'll admit to not wholly going with the novel's sense of this world's politics. It's not that I find the politics somehow unbelievable—they're not. It's that the novel kept plunging deeper and deeper into those politics and that corruption, when I wanted to resist and follow Lila Mae's "investigations" more. Granted, her investigations were what was pulling in all of this political corruption, for the most part, but I think I resisted these impulses because, for the most part, this was where the push toward making the story a fairly straightforward allegory came from. The politics of the book are at once complex (everybody's corrupt!) and sort of facile (everybody's corrupt!) and I kept wanting greater purchase than Whitehead was letting me have. But that may be me wanting the novel to be something other than what it ultimately was.

If I had to pick a favorite section of the novel, though, it would be that first quarter, when Whitehead is setting all his players and his setting into motion with a sort of half-contained zeal. He's so confident in what he's doing, in introducing all of these elements, that I was a little disappointed when the other sections more or less settled into "Now we tell the story" mode. The section I responded to the most, after that opening section, was the closing quarter, when Whitehead more or less closes off most of the opportunity that seems to arise out of the opening section. This is a novel about how possibility gradually shuts itself off to us, and I most responded to the sections where those possibilities saw their fullest flowering, then their greatest closure.

Tasha Robinson: I’m with Todd in feeling more drawn into The Intuitionist’s whodunit mystery than the political games, corrupt and otherwise; there are already so many depressing, convoluted, corruption-filled political games to unravel in real life that I don’t get much satisfaction out of fictional ones. It isn’t that I find the book’s political games unrealistic; Chancre’s habit of spinning any development in the elevator world into proof of his side’s fitness to lead struck me as cartoonishly simple, yet depressingly plausible. It’s just how politics works today.

With that in mind, it seems like the novel’s politics are of a piece with the city—just another form of detailed modern backdrop to the actual story, which is Lila Mae’s character. There’s the noir, mystery-hunting aspect of what she actually does, but the novel is more about who she is, as we discussed yesterday—how she faces the world, and how she got to be who she is. The city is nameless and anonymous because it’s less of a real, specific place than the real setting of the book, the ridiculously nuanced world of elevators. The city is just “our city,” as the characters call it, but the elevator world is so specific that it has factions, billboards, publications, philosophies, Fulton’s semi-religious mysticism, and even spin-offs and branches, like Chuck with his obsession with escalators.

With that in mind, to answer Ellen’s question, no, I don’t think the politics could have been “fixed” in the book, since they weren’t a particularly dynamic part of the story. Both sides were entrenched and corrupt; both sides were manipulating Lila Mae for their own ends, without regard for her either as a person or as a symbol of her race, trying to exceed the boundaries of entrenched racism. The only way to win that game is not to play, which is what Lila Mae does in the end. She escapes the system by putting herself in a position above it; instead of arguing doctrine or listening to preachers debating interpretations, she’s off writing a new Bible. Maybe her work will bring about a major change in how the elevator world is run, or understood, but given that this is beyond the book’s purview, I’d say that has nothing to do with her victory. Her victory is in escaping the broken bureaucracy, and even acknowledging that she might leave her anonymous city and move on. Her ending the book by stepping outside the system is essentially a final proof that she sees the system as unsalvageable, at least in the short term. Who knows what’s going to come in future generations as a result of her work, though. There, the racial metaphor continues.