I love novels that weave obscure histories into their narratives. Chuck Palahniuk is a fan of this trope, while Don DeLillo sends it up every chance he gets. The Intuitionist treats readers to a balanced approach, placing great focus and regard on the vibrant world of elevator inspection.
When you say you’re reading a novel about elevator inspectors, people’s ears perk up. Their eyes go wide. Even if their interest is fleeting, it’s there for a second or two. “Elevator inspector” isn’t the job title you expect your protagonist to have. A photojournalist, a blind piano tuner, a retired fighter pilot — these are the people you expect to narrate your novels.
Colson Whitehead‘s novel revolves around Lila Mae Watson, the first woman — and second African-American — to join the ranks of the city’s elevator inspectors. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist: a person who evaluates elevators simply by riding them and sensing their problems and quirks. In a sea of mostly-white, all-male Empiricists, she stands out. Lila Mae is still a newbie when the prestigious high-rise she’s been assigned to inspect experiences a tragic free-fall. Smelling a rat, she spends the rest of the novel hashing out who played whom and why.
The Intuitionist‘s prose is magnificent. The city Whitehead describes — a version of New York, it seems — twists and turns with noir grit. Nothing is colorful. Everything is dramatic. The vibe is distinctly dieselpunk, minus the large-scale blimp travel. A precise decade never gets pinned down, but that doesn’t harm the novel’s appeal.
What does hurt Whitehead’s story, however, is its incessant reliance on its knotted plot. Halfway through The Intuitionist, it becomes difficult to keep track of who’s in service to whom — a set of critical facts in a novel about a political scandal during a local-government election year. When the plot finally moves beyond this and the pond begins to clear, a series of dramatic — but anti-climactic — plot twists propels it to the ending. It isn’t a bad conclusion, but it’s one that certainly seems to possess unused potential.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
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