Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead: Impressions

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead was a uniquely interesting if not entirely enjoyable novel. It's been on my TBR list for years, after a good friend told me I absolutely had to read this book (I can't recall whether or not he gave me a specific reason, but I do remember the emphaticalness of his recommendation), and it won the very small poll for August's book club pick because it sounds particularly intriguing and deceives one into thinking it will be fast paced right away. It is not. The pace does not quicken substantially but rather accelerates very slowly until about midway through the novel, after which it maintains a good page-turn inducing speed.

The story, as far as I can tell, is a bit of speculative fiction with a fair amount of absurdism thrown in. It seems to be set in an alternative version of the late 50s or early 60s (they mention the "famous reverend"). In this alternate reality, the Elevator Guild has substantial power in city operations (the city is probably New York, but it's never actually called New York City). The reality seems to have begun, or split, down this different path sometime in the 1850s, when elevators were first introduced. At the time of the book, there is a heated rivalry between the Empiricists, who need to see everything about the elevator in order to determine what's wrong, or if everything is running smoothly, and the Intuitionists, who have some sort of intimate interaction with the elevators they inspect and can determine any problems by communing with the elevator itself - no need to check the physical gear. An Empiricist name Chancre is currently in power, but elections are coming up.

Lila Mae Watson, the protagonist, is the first black, female elevator inspector, and she's an Intuitionist - three strikes against her. Race relations in this reality are no better than they were in ours in the 50s and 60s. Lila Mae can blend right into the background, become invisible, due to her color and everyone's tendency not to take notice of anyone non-white. It is still blatantly threatening to black people, as Lila Mae describes her natural inclinations ("Because her father taught her that white folks can turn on you at any moment") while entering a bar (O'Connor's) looking for her one pseudofriend in the guild:
They can turn rabid at any second; this is the true result of gathering integration: the replacement of sure violence with deferred sure violence. Her position is precarious in the office, she understands that, and in O'Connor's as well; she's a lost tourist among heavy vowels, the crude maps of ancestral homelands, and the family crests of near-exterminated clans. Her position is precarious everywhere she goes in this city, for that matter, but she's trained dread to keep invisible in its ubiquity, like fire hydrants and gum trod into black sidewalk spackle. Makeshift weapons include shoes, keys, and broken bottles. Pool cues if their handy. 
The underlying threat of violence flows throughout the novel, but unevenly, and at times, unnecessarily. (Would someone please explain to me the relevance of The Screaming Man? Because as far as I can tell, that small scene in there solely to mislead, and adds unnecessary violence.)

Lila Mae's character is an interesting choice - she's a woman, black and an Intuitionist, but her personality is calculating, cool, observant and distant, basically turning gender and race stereotypes on their respective heads. Perhaps it's only objects that Lila Mae can relate to, as an Intuitionist who understands the wants and needs of elevators but not those of people.

The novel, overall, didn't go as far as I would have liked. The elements of the absurd (Intuitionism, for example) took a while to recognize in the light of an alternative reality. The wordplay was enjoyable, but it often slowed down the pace of the novel. (At one point a character is described as "that vapor, that meandering cumulus masquerading as a man.")  It's a short novel but not a fast read. I'd recommend reading it (I'm almost positive I'm missing something) but only when you're looking for something different and a little challenging.

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