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The Intuitionist: Introduction, and the force of a metaphor

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: A native New Yorker and MacArthur Genius Grant winner, Colson Whitehead has drifted toward a more gentle satire peppered with punchlines, like the branding spoof of Apex Hides the Hurt and the ’80s-inflected nostalgia of Sag Harbor. I really liked both those books, and his occasional op-eds are a thoughtful joy—“What to Write Next” from The New York Times is a recent favorite—but it was a revelation to go back and discover the comparatively darker pictures painted by his first two books, The Intuitionist and John Henry Days.

The Intuitionist submerges readers in a political world where the squabbles are familiar, even if the territory isn’t: The Department of Elevator Inspectors it profiles resembles a police department more than anything, complete with its own chain of patronage positions and distrusted Internal Affairs office. (If Google doesn’t lead me astray, the function of elevator inspection seems to have been mostly privatized nowadays, in case you were ready to enroll in the Institute for Vertical Transport at the end of the book.) The failure of Number Eleven in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building, as the book opens, isn’t just a fluke accident, but the kind of easy symbol politicians easily reach for, as if it might not just bring down the career of Lila Mae Watson (about whom, more later this week) but might take the rest of the skyscraper-dwelling and -working populace down with it.

And of course, there’s the matter of the elevators themselves. Relating the rise and fall of the trailblazer Lila Mae Watson using such an obvious metaphor, I have found, tends to elicit one of three reactions for the people to whom I’ve recommended The Intuitionist. They delight in the comparison between Lila Mae and the machines to which she’s devoted her life’s work, they tolerate it, or they can’t stand it, at which point they probably won’t even finish the book. Given my overexposure to poetry in my youth, I think the importance of elevators to Lila Mae and everyone else in The Intuitionist is a necessary buy-in to best appreciate how the story unfolds. The elevator world is so silkily incorporated into Whitehead’s unnamed city, with its appropriately dark corners—I pictured it as a black-and-white movie with meaningful clouds of fog drifting over the Intuitionists’ headquarters and down to City Hall—and it’s hard to beat as a symbol of progress. One of my favorite passages gives Lila Mae’s view over part of the city that predates the skyscraper—for which she feels no nostalgia, but Whitehead’s prose sings against her over the sweeping vista.

But what did you see in The Intuitionist, and did you find its world of tall tales and taller buildings to be at all captivating? Did the notion of the elevator inspectors’ private society make you intrigued or frustrated? Are you prepared to enroll in the Institute, even if it means you have to live in the janitor’s closet?

Leonard Pierce:  I'd say I fell somewhere in the middle of the first two reactions, Ellen. I wasn't completely enthralled with the metaphor at first, but I found it interesting enough, and wouldn't reduce it to mere toleration.  It made its point easily enough, and was evident without being obvious. It was the way it was decorated—immersed in political in-fighting, exaggerated from the quotidian to the nearly transcendent, and decorated with competing theories and belief systems—that pulled me in, rather than the central metaphor itself.

But as with so many times before, when the circumstances under which I read a book became a big influence on how I experienced it, I happened to read The Intuitionist at a time when I was working in a downtown office building, on the top floor. Every day, I had to take a very old, frequently repaired elevator to my office, and reading bits and pieces of the book on my morning commute, I began to imagine workers from the Department Of Elevator Inspectors hunched over the controls.  At the same time, I happened to read this harrowing story, which begins with the true account of a New York magazine designer trapped in an elevator for nearly two days, and goes on to explore a number of aspects of our relationship with these miraculous metal boxes. 

All these things led me to re-assess the importance of the elevator in our contemporary lives, the way millions of people entrust their safety several times a day to a machine they barely understand, the way we approach them with an unthinking faith that almost resembles something spiritual. This made accepting, and embracing, Colson Whitehead's curious metaphor much easier than it had ever been; suddenly, Lila Mae's obsession with them, the way they assumed an almost religious importance in her life, became far easier to understand. It settled from a literary device I was forced to take or leave to a much more natural piece of the story’s background reality, and ended up enhancing my appreciation of The Intuitionist.  Instead of life imitating art, it intruded on it, subsumed it, and, curiously, made it more real.

Tasha Robinson: It’s a real pity that this particular book hit us during some scheduling problems—people on vacation or with other major competing projects—so we won’t have as much staff participation as usual. Because I’d really like to poll my fellow writers and see exactly when they picked up on the central metaphor. Ellen calls it “obvious,” Leonard calls it “evident without being obvious,” but I didn’t see it at all until Whitehead told me it was there. For much of the book, I was reading this almost as a companion piece to our last selection, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler—another book focused on with progress, soaring architecture, and the details of fantastical, theoretical obsessions, highly specific to the point of hyperbolic comedy. As over-the-top as Intuitionist sometimes gets, with its talk of “the perfect elevator” and “the second elevation,” I took it more as magical realism and sometimes droll satire than as a metaphor for something as specific as race relations. So when Whitehead finally pulls the curtain away at the end and shows us the little man hard at work pulling levers, I was pretty pleased at how well everything fell into place, but I hadn’t seen it coming, and the metaphor hadn’t pulled me onward through the book.

Really, what captured me about The Intuitionist was the force of Lila Mae Watson’s personality—her determination and her drive. I’ve never much cared for mysteries, and the question of who sabotaged the elevator wasn’t a big deal for me. But she cared and needed to know, and that, more than anything, pulled me in. She’s an underdog from the beginning, fighting long-entrenched, society-wide racism and sexism, and doing so with a stiff, stubborn pride that will not budge under the force of any bad behavior or threat. I found more to admire in that than in most heroes. And she does literally come across as a hero—a larger than life character inhabiting an almost comically cartoony world, one weirdly obsessed with elevators. One of the things I found most compelling about the book is that it rarely hints that there’s a larger, non-elevator-focused world out there. In the real world, there certainly are narrowly focused technical schools, and industry-specific magazines, and small enclaves of co-workers dealing with political infighting that consume their tiny worlds. But Intuitionist doesn’t present all this as one small facet of a larger world—it is the world, in microcosm.

In retrospect, this should have clued me into the fact that Whitehead was building a metaphor. But he does it so richly and so well that his elevator-obsessive world was worth getting lost in on its own merits. The metaphor here can be a little broad at times—I’m particularly dubious about the point where Whitehead spells out the idea that whites are basically Empiricists and black people are Intuitionists—but the story itself stands on its own merits, which is part of the key to building a book worth reading for enjoyment, instead of one worth reading solely to get a message.

Todd VanDerWerff: Perhaps this point is better suited to tomorrow's discussion on Lila as a character, but I found it enormously hard to read The Intuitionist and not think about other historic firsts for African-Americans, like Jackie Robinson, or hell, even Barack Obama. If we extend Whitehead's metaphor out to its logical breaking point, the reason the Intuitionists have a higher success rate than the Empiricists is because they have to. If they don't, then all corners of the world descend on them to tell them how awful they are (as happens when the crash happens on Lila's watch). Building your entire novel around a central metaphor that threatens to turn the narrative into a fable or parable at any given moment doesn't strike me as the safest way to construct a story, so I'm heartily impressed that Whitehead kept my interest throughout and actually largely distracted me from the larger implications of the metaphor, even though I had read some reviews that pointed out specifically the idea that the book was a modern fable of some sort.

Obviously, we all know as human beings that perfection is impossible. But we're often willing to forgive our own imperfections while being incredibly impatient with everyone else's, particularly if they're not of our tribe. One of the things I like about The Intuitionist is that it's savvy enough to understand that people will always split themselves into us-and-them groups. Sure, it's a little dubious when Whitehead tries to imply that Empiricists are basically white people and Intuitionists are basically black people, but I think what he's saying is broader. We'll always be creating "others," and if racial harmony were somehow immediately achieved in the next 15 minutes, a lot of people would just move on to hating someone else. Empiricists hate Intuitionists not because they have some fundamental philosophical difference; they hate them because they're not Empiricists.

That said, I really enjoyed the alternate-world building of the elevator world. I described the book to my wife as "elevator noir," but that's not really accurate. The elevators take on the role of spaceships in a space opera or magical spells in a fairy tale; they're the objects of mystery and awe, the things that can transport our characters between this world and the next. (I kept thinking throughout of that New Yorker article, Leonard!) In a way, Whitehead is getting at something fundamental about technology: A lot of it is pretty amazing, but we spend very little time thinking about it. There's an offhand mention in the early going about traffic reporters going to the tops of buildings to look down upon the traffic and call in reports, and it had me wondering if this world even had air travel, or if the wonder of elevators had stalled that particular development. In some ways, the cost of progress is that we become less enamored with what we already have (when's the last time you thought about how wondrous the process of a safe, easy elevator ride is?), but in some cases, that's a good thing. A time will come when there are dozens of Lila Mae Watsons, and that will mean not every one of them needs a 100 percent accuracy rate.