Title: The Intuitionist
Rating: 4 Stars
Although not a huge novel, The Intuitionist tackles several themes and, by and large, executes well on them.
The basic plot is that a city, with the development of elevators, has undergone a huge change in its landscape. It is now much more vertical, and with that verticality, elevator inspectors have become a notable career with a rigorous education and are treated with great respect.
There are two schools of elevator inspectors. There are the Empiricists, who perform their inspections precisely by a very well documented book. They inspect closely the machinery to make sure that it follows specifications precisely. In the other camp are the Intuitionists. They believe that elevators have a spiritual quality. They believe that if you are attuned to the spirit of the elevator, that simply riding it will unveil its mysteries.
As you can imagine, there is tension between these two schools and they are constantly fighting for supremacy.
Into this comes Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female inspector. She is a committed Intuitionist. She has become the most accurate inspector. However, an elevator that she has recently inspected suffers a catastrophic failure. This calls into question not just Watson’s capabilities, but the entire Intuitionist movement.
The plot of the book is Watson’s attempt to clear her name, and in so doing, makes discoveries that shock her but ultimately becomes her life’s mission.
So many things going on here. First of all, I loved the world that Whitehead has invented here. It feels like sometimes it’s the 1930’s, sometimes it’s the 1950’s. The story is somewhat non-linearly told, but even give that, the novel’s present time feels anachronistic.
Be that as it may, I felt myself getting sucked into this whole other completed world in which elevator inspection is of the highest calling. I felt sympathy for Chuck, the lowly escalator inspector, desperate to prove to an unsympathetic world, that escalators are just as important to elevators. His master’s thesis apparently consists of hounding people at a department store standing in line to take the elevator as to why they’re not taking the escalator which is quite literally right next to them. He is rightly treated with contempt by the waiting patrons.
In this world of elevators is politics. The glad-handers of the Empiricists and the glad-handers of the Intuitionists each fight for the right to be elected the Elevator Guild Chair, from which power flows. Also in this world is a mafia, which Johnny Shush runs and who has managed to take over the elevator repair business.
Racism and sexism is everywhere. Even though she is their top performer, as the first black female inspector, she suffers scorn, or even worse, is completely ignored. Since the good old boys are all Empiricists, she suffers even more as an Intuitionist. The first black inspector, Pompey, is a get-along, go-along Empiricist who grimly takes the racist jokes that the other Empiricists give him as the price to be paid to be the first.
Racism looms even larger when she discovers that James Fulton, the founder of the Intuitionist movement, was actually a black man passing for white. Why Fulton decided to pass as white and what this would mean to the Intuitionist movement if this fact became known becomes another theme.
Along with racism is philosophy, specifically the Empiricist movement vs the Intuitionist movement. This is a pretty fundamental philosophical difference. Do you believe in the real world as it concretely exists around you or do you believe that, beyond the real, measurable world, there is another world that is open and waiting for you to open your mind to?
With the Intuitionists, there is a longing for a believed lost work written by James Fulton of a perfect elevator. This is an elevator that somehow expresses the essence of an elevator, not necessarily in a corporeal manner. If such an elevator could be built, then it would fundamentally change civilization because there would be no restraints on verticality. To achieve this dream is called the second elevation, and a good chunk of the latter part of the book is Watson’s search for those lost papers. Both the Empiricists and the Intuitionists desperately want to be the first to find it.
The work is itself only around 250 pages, so this is a lot of themes to be examining in a relatively short span, but Whitehead did a pretty masterful job doing so. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.