There are many things to like about Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist. But, it is a strange book to approach as a reader and suspend prejudgment long enough to like it. I mean imagine you get the five minute elevator pitch (yes- that pun is unfortunate) for this book: “Well, it’s about the city’s first, black, female, elevator inspector. She becomes caught up in a web of intrigue surrounding theoretical note books that concern the design of a paradigm-changing elevator.” I know that’s not something that gets me fired up. However, this is a successful novel. As a writer, I came away thinking about the reasons something so weird worked so well. Whitehead employs two tactics that complemented his overall narrative strategy: a reticence to provide info dumps until they inform the story and a lack of specificity of regarding time and place. While one of the novel’s primary concerns is race, the slippery terms and complicated tensions that surround the topic fill this book, Whitehead manages to make this theme something significant and noticeable without detracting from the plot, and he does so without ever really telling the reader where the story takes place. Yes, I hear you screaming it is clearly New York City, but we will deal with that a couple of paragraphs below.
The novel takes a great risk in its very premise that elevator inspectors and elevator manufacturers are central to the very existence of a city. Once the reader has committed themselves to this premise there is not much more to say about it until the reader has something invested in the success of the protagonist’s quest. So, I think Whitehead was smart to withhold essential information regarding the political and philosophical underpinnings of the world he creates until it is significant to the story. This might sound like common sense to some folks, but I have seen this poorly handled in many novels. Many times, the reader is beaten over the head with all kinds of detailed artifice that is explained and enumerated in a bid to create a realistic world. This can occur in any kind of fiction where there are all manner of things occurring that the reader might need explanations: science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc. It is Whitehead’s decision to hold back on the details until it develops his characters that makes the information work harder. For example, I enjoyed reading a scene where the protagonist is asked a number of esoteric questions regarding the history, function, and design of elevators. It was enjoyable because I was cheering for the protagonist at this point in the novel; her mastery of the information and her ability to pass the test are important because I care that she passes it. The fact that I am becoming more invested in the politics of competing theoretical ideas of elevator inspection is secondary (for me as a reader) to what is at stake for the protagonist. In the end the “test scene” works on four levels: it develops the character of the protagonist, it causes the reader to become invested in Whitehead’s alternate universe, it shows the nature of the racism the protagonist is dealing with, and simultaneously reveals one of her major flaws. In short, by being careful with what he tells the reader and why, Whitehead gets more effect for his effort.
Whitehead’s decision to not anchor this alternate metropolis in a well defined time or place is interesting. The reader is told very little about where they are: a city, which is obviously New York if you look for the landmarks. However, the city is not explicitly named while others are. Also, there is a decidedly high amount of racial tension as well as reference to black characters being referred to as “colored,” which makes one feel as though they are reading about a narrative that occurs approximately somewhere in the 1960s. Other historical landmarks, such as pictures of civil rights leaders, are dropped in subtle ways. Thematically, I read this as a commentary on the atemporality of the topic of race. But, it also works to give the story a certain tone. The narrative itself is not told in a strictly linear fashion, Whitehead will often provide scenes that have only tangential meaning to the main narrative arc, so the reader’s uncertainty regarding exactly where they are located is something that is maintained to effect throughout the novel. However, the story is replete with so many concrete details, as well as allusions to the thrillers and detective stories, that the reader is able to situate themselves with this strange city and come along for the ride. That is the key. If you are willing to place yourself in the good hands of Mr. Whitehead, he will take you on an insightful journey to somewhere that is as familiar as it is strange. And you are in good hands. Just relax, take a few things as they are presented, and this novel will be worth your time.