The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead



I finished this book a few hours ago and I’ve been sitting here for over an hour, theoretically to write the review, but instead I’ve been scrolling through Twitter, reading blog posts, deleting categories and tags I haven’t used in forever, and generally just procrastinating. So, you know, this may not make sense, but just roll with me.

The Intuitionist (which for DAYS I mistakenly kept thinking of as The Institutionist, because apparently I didn’t look at the title very closely and just assumed) takes place in an earlier New York City, a city full of tall buildings that use vertical transportation, i.e., elevators. Racial integration is a hot topic, and black people are referred to as “colored” (or worse). The book surrounds Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector, and the story takes off when a high-profile elevator that she inspected just days before fails and crashes. She is of the “Intuition” school of elevator inspecting – that is, she rides the elevator and intuits it and its systems to detect problems. The rival school of inspecting is Empiricism, who inspect elevators the traditional ways with tools and physically testing its parts and functions. Lila is being framed for the elevator accident, and she’s on a mission to find out who’s behind it.

The book is about who framed Lila, and the hunt for the “black box” – the idea of the perfect elevator. But within that is an entire work of social commentary on race relations during that time – that time I’m guessing to be something like the 1940’s. You know, back when girl’s legs were “gams” and the Mob was a big thing. The book did a good job balancing mystery with racism and the effects it has. The Intuitionist had a great noir feel, like a black-and-white detective movie. Lila Mae is an great character – a little rigid, but necessarily so, intelligent and quick-thinking and ballsy. The idea of this world where there’s this whole rival elevator-inspectors thing is odd, but it’s what led me to pick up the book and it was an interesting choice.

Overall, it’s not exactly a quick read, even those it’s only about 250 pages. I read 10-20 pages a day initially, and then read the last 150 pages throughout the day today. Some parts definitely picked up the pace and had me hooked, wanting to know what was going on. I want to insert some quotes here, because I really enjoyed Whitehead’s writing, but the best ones are a little spoiler-y, so I won’t. Just know that there’s some great stuff in here. I’m glad I read this… it was good. I don’t think it’ll be a favorite of mine, but I want to read some of Whitehead’s other books (this was his debut novel). And this may turn out to be a book that I come back to thinking about again and again… it’s too early to tell.

 Sarah Says: 3.5 stars


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