An Enigmatic Historical Moment in Fiction:
Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist
book review by Ralph Dumain
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead is a new, first novel by an African-American writer born in New York in 1969. While it may not be a masterpiece to go down in history with Invisible Man, it is superbly written and a totally absorbing read, becoming irresistable toward the end as the protagonist finally pieces together what is really going on.
Lila Mae Watson is one of the very few "colored" elevator inspectors in the big city, one of the rare ones to break through. Judging by the terminology and other clues, most likely this is the late '50s or early '60s. There are two schools of elevator theory, the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. Lila Mae counts herself among the Intuitionists, a breakaway school of thought that has challenged the Empiricist elevator establishment. Lila Mae has a spotless inspection record, but a mysterious elevator crash immediately following her inspection sets off a chain of complex intrigue which leads her to seek out the lost writings of Fulton, the enigmatic founder of the Intuitionist school. In addition to the intrigue enmeshing the rival elevator schools, the local politicians, the mob, the press, and the elevator companies, there is the factor of race, and the harsh conditions colored workers face in these days before the civil rights movement has turned the corner in overturning the old ways. Is it just a coincidence that Lila Mae as a colored woman has chosen to join the esoteric Intuitionist faction, or is there more to it than meets the eye? What is Fulton's secret? What really makes Intuitionism tick? Out of the clash of interlocking social forces, what lies in store for the future, and how can the underdogs, determined workers whose sole motive is to do their jobs honestly and make their know-how improve the welfare of humanity, make their way and accomplish their work in a world governed by brutality, power-lust, and greed? There are some surprises lying in wait as the tale unfolds.
I won't spoil any surprises by revealing any climactic plot twists, but let's just say there is a bit of signifying behind this Intuitionism, which says something about cognitive and cultural strategies under conditions of adversity. Such are the enigmas that reveal themselves in decisive historical moments.
12 June 2000, edited & uploaded 30 June 2001
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