If asked to give a list of exciting professions, most people would likely think of things like spy, model or personal assistant to Jason Momoa or Scarlet Johansson; it seems unlikely that elevator safety inspector would make many lists, with the possible exception of the occasional elevator safety inspector who really love their job – and readers of Colson Whitehead’s debut novel The Intuitionist.
The novel’s protagonist is Lila Mae Watson, the first coloured female inspector to enter the Department of Elevator Inspection, and it is her we follow in close third person perspective through most of its events (although there are occasional switches to different points of view, as well as the occasional interspersed auctorial comment – just two of the many “yes, but not quite” moments that are scattered throughout the novel on all levels), said Lita Mae Watson, then, finds out just how unpleasantly exciting her job can become when an elevator she inspected and cleared has an accident and she is set up to take the fall for it. So she goes underground in an attempt to clear her name, and, while being pursued and threatened by all kinds of unsavoury types, uncovers a network of conspiracy and corruption that extends to the highest level of power… This is of course your archetypical noir plot – except that it isn’t. Not quite, anyway.
The world The Intuitionist is set in, appears strange, yet is strangely familiar. While the city where it takes place is (as far as I can remember) never named, it is quite obviously modelled after New York. The novel draws an obvious parallel between its elevator safety inspectors and the police force, it is populated with well-worn character types like the corrupt, power-hungry politician, the ruthless mafiosi, the idealistic journalists and a protagonist that doggedly searches for the truth, no matter what the obstacles; and finally, the plot with its mixture of violence, social criticism and existential melancholy will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a noir story or watched a noir movie. Does that mean that The Intuitionist is a crime novel in flimsy disguise? Well, kind of. But not really.
At least I have yet to come across a crime novel where one of the major plot points revolves around competing schools of epistemology. The conflicts between the Empiricist and Intuitionist schools of elevator safety inspection (based – more or less – on positivism and phenomenology, respectively) seems more like a gimmick at first (and application of phenomenological philosophy to elevator safety – “separate the elevatorness from the elevator” – makes for some hilarious moments in what is otherwise a very grim novel), but as the plot progresses and Whitehead gradually unfolds all of the metaphorical and allegorical implications, it becomes clear that there is more to it than meets the eye (which in itself constitutes one of the main thematic strands of the novel).
Also, while it is never explicitely stated, there is a strong retro vibe about The Intuitionist, a pervading if implicit sense that it takes place some time during the thirties of the twentieth centure, evoked by the noirish plot, the way the characters talk and the descriptive language which adds an additional level of patina to what it depicts – tinting them not so much in the sepia tones of nostalgic romanticisation, but depicting them in the stark black and white colours of a noir movie. Which is very much not a coincidence (and neither is that the various factions in the novel are chasing after a “black box” rather than a Maltese Falcon), for as removed as the world of The Intuitionist might seem from ours in some respects, there is at least one element they both share, and that is its discrimination of coloured people, the racism that Lila Mae Watson and other characters of the novel encounter at almost every step they make. The distance Whitehead puts between his novel and its readers turns out to be a distancing effect, a Brechtian Verfremdung (and note that Brecht wrote several of his best works during the thirties) that distorts our own, all too familiar world into recognisability.
The theme of racism radiates out into all levels of The Intuitionist, literal and figurative ones, and Whitehead spins a complex web of allegory and metaphor around that center, holding it all in a fragile, trembling balance. That he holds all of it together and that it does not come crashing down is mainly due to his intelligent, precise writing that still transmits the passion that glows in its core. It’s hard to believe that this is a first novel, and I am very curious to find out where Whitehead moved on from here.