• David Holloway

Review of "The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead.


The Intuitionist is a piece of speculative fiction. Set in a city analogous to New York City, it focused broadly on the world of elevator inspectors Thematically, it strongly addresses racial issues, but also considers the power of major corporations in society.


There are a number of things to like in this novel . But ultimately, it doesn’t accomplish the kind of sentiment in the reader that I think it is aiming for. The subject matter is difficult to work with and when the story falters, it all seems flat. I finished the work disappointed.

Mr Whitehead’s work must be praised for its originality, for such obscure and arcane subject matter. Of all things, it's about elevators. (Was this forced up from an imposed free writing exercise?) Credit is due for the author’s ambition in taking on this subject, and for delivering an encyclopaedic treatise on vertical transport. Who would have thought (or bothered to think) of all this?

All of this narrative scaffolding supports a thematically important book. Racial and gender struggle, social progress, and the old order versus the new order are all examined using the allegory of verticality. The writing is descriptively powerful in places: “The hallway smells of burning animal fat and obscure gravies boiling to slag.” And a compelling film noir idiom ticks insistently in the narrative, providing an underlying sense of menace and intrigue.

However, the novel fails to accomplish itself - or its themes - meaningfully. Four major problems plague it.

First, Lila Mae is not developed as a character I can care about – especially not in the beginning. I can see that she is a noir heroine, battling all kinds of undeserved opposition. But she never fully emerges with her own emotional cadence. She enters the action as “She”, and her spirit is never fully revealed. We learn about her heritage in the flashback scene with her father, but that’s too late and lacks impact. Her voice is indistinguishable from the (too) many different narrative points of view we endure. That voice is distant, circumspect, worsened by the inaccessible content:

A placard overlooked for red-blooded distraction details in silver script Arbo’s patented QuarterPoint CounterWeight System. Has this ever happened to you? You’ve just put the finishing touches on your latest assignment and are proud as a peacock to show off for your client.

And here we have clumsy exposition wrapped around useless parenthetical details that drain the narrative verve:

Lila Mae (who, by the way, is still not making much headway in the evening traffic) may be an Intuitionist, but she is a colored woman, which is more to the point.

Moreover, Lila Mae fails to express herself fully in the (minimal) dialogue she undertakes. Most of her speech is fragmented, with few revealing discussions, and her language is generally flat, even reluctant, draining the reader’s energy and interest.

I want more from my heroine than this. And when she does finally face Chancre in direct confrontation – “Because no one cares about a nigger. Because if you don’t, the next time you come down here, you won’t meet with me. You’ll talk to one of Shush’s boys, and they are never misunderstood.” she fails to respond to the challenge (a very personal and offensive challenge) in any meaningful way.

The second issue of concern is the topic. The politics of vertical transport is a hard sell in long form fiction and this novel doesn’t land it. Humor or irony might help us to see what the author is getting at with this, and it might leaven the elevator rhetoric of the characters or the Kafkaesque milieu. But there is little or none of this. So what provides relief from this slow and serious novel? I can only take so many paradigm disputes between the escalator bores and the elevator boffins.

And we are asked to believe that elevators have organic personality and some kind of psychic vibrations. I am prepared to entertain this startling proposition. But it needs to be something different to people who think their tomato plants like classical music. It needs to have greater meaning and application than elevator cars. And I need to be convinced quickly. None of these conditions are met in The Intuitionist and I am still left without a full explanation of intuitionism. And the holy grail of this is a black box (a terribly hackneyed name) where the stakes are something that will “deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks”. That doesn’t work. I could just as easily posit that elevators increase the atomisation and impersonality of cities.

Third: I am compelled by the themes Mr Whitehead is working with, but they strain the seams of this pulp fiction-esque story. In the context of racial and gender questions, things like trivial identity politics, gangsters, big city corruption and mafia maintenance contracts fail to excite me. And when there is an explicit effort to connect the subject and the themes, it is ham-fisted and weak:

White people’s reality is built on what things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light, the wear on the carriage buckle, the stress fractures in the motor casing.

Fourth, the narrative point of view in this work is too distant and shifts too much, with little or no matching shift in voice. Regardless of whose point of view we are in, each paragraph has the same type of picky observations that are exhausting for the reader, of no real value to the narrative and sound like an elevator home shopping catalogue:

Contrary to prevailing notions, the elevator inspector dispatch room is not filled with long consoles staffed by an able company who furiously plug and unplug wires from myriad inputs, busily routing … Even long observers of the mysterious ways of corporate vanity are hard-pressed to understand the sudden ubiquity of elevator ads.

©2020 by David Holloway