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The Intuitionist

3.73  ·  Rating Details ·  5,235 Ratings  ·  607 Reviews
Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead's first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city's first black female elevator inspector, is ...more
Paperback, 208 pages
Published October 11th 1999 by Granta Books (first published January 1999)
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J.L.   Sutton
Dec 12, 2016 J.L. Sutton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is a mystery about…elevator inspectors? Or is it about an ideological conflict between opposing schools of elevator theory (the Empiricists and the Intuitionists) which surfaces when an elevator deemed safe by elevator inspector, Lila Mae Watson (an Intuitionist) goes into freefall? Whitehead’s novel has the feel of a noir detective story replete with intrigue and espionage. His urban landscape is filled with characters you’d expect to see in such a novel and ...more
Jun 16, 2012 Carol. rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Someone who wants a gumbo of mystery, lit, pulp, and African-American experience.
Recommended to Carol. by: me

I came to Colson Whitehead by way of zombies.

Colson Whitehead, writer of award-nominated books, including National Book Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and New York Times Notable Book of the Year; contributer to the New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and Harper's; and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.

Yes, that Colson Whitehead. Zombies.

I'd like to pause for a moment and just admire the mind-twist for those that deride zombie books.

Maryellen Allen
Jul 23, 2007 Maryellen Allen rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book was recommended to me off a list. I read some reviews before I dove in. Some said "it's about elevators" others said "it's all about race". Well...they're both kind of right, but I think they've missed the point.

This is an excellent book. It's an old fashioned murder mystery wrapped in a philosophical discussion wrapped in a metaphor. Colson Whitehead has created a wonderful "film noir" urban landscape completely centered around the world of elevator inspectors. This world of elevator
In an interview with following the publication of his 1999 debut novel The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead discusses the freedom he has as an African American writer of the late 20th century. He says, "decades ago, there was the protest novel, and then there was 'tell the untold story, find our unerased history.' Then there's the militant novel of insurrection from the '60s. There were two rigid camps in the '60s: the Black Arts movement, denouncing James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison for b ...more
Jun 13, 2007 Shepherd rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This isn't just an allegory of race, as the many glowing reviews in the prefatory pages state. It's an allegory of everything. "Elevators" and "intuitionism" variously represent upward social mobility and its limits, the threatened gains of the civil rights movement, the anxiety of a post-rational worldview, challenges to good-old-boy cronyism, the enabling factor of the modern urban center and the possibility of its transcendence ... the list goes on. In the interest of thematic expansiveness, ...more
Jennifer (aka EM)
Mar 20, 2011 Jennifer (aka EM) rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jennifer (aka EM) by: Dave Russell
I'll hold off rating this one until I think about it a bit... there is a lot to like about it; but a lot I just didn't understand. My elevator sometimes doesn't go all the way to the top.


Here's the thing: at another time and place, I would probably rate this a 4. However, in this current time and place, the complexity of the structure, an allegory that I never really "got" and the flat affect of the central character all kept me at arm's length when what I wanted, most, was to be im
Jul 03, 2010 Jonfaith rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
There was no one else to blame. The Intuitionist was my pick for a tandem read with my wife. We read it in a single day, one which left us bruised from all the cliches and the noir tropes which were further wrinkled with the riddle of race. I recall Mr. Whitehead was reported to have been spit upon by novelist Richard Ford. No, I wouldn't go that far. . .
Jun 17, 2007 Julia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
All of the typical noir elements are here - the big, industrial city, menacing boss(es) playing dirty politics, muckraking reporter, servant with a trick up his sleeve, small-town girl in the big city. But nothing, not even a single description, is cliche. The main character is principled and smart, but she's so reserved that even the reader has to make some guesses at her emotional life. The plot is unpredictable - whimsical, jarring and scary, abstract for a while, mundane.

I'm not sure the pa
Althea Ann
Oct 09, 2012 Althea Ann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

I read Whitehead's 'Zone One' for post-apocalyptic book club, and liked it - someone at our meeting recommended 'The Intuitionist' to me - but all they would say is 'Well, it's about elevator repairmen. But I think you would like it.'

Admittedly, I didn't immediately think that reading about elevator repair sounded like the most thrilling activity. You may not be instantly hooked by that description. You might even think it sounds dull. Well, you would be w
Aug 22, 2016 Phyllis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, americana
Really interesting book. It is set in what seems a lot like New York City, though in what decade (or even century) is a little mysterious. Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector (there is one older man who is the first black elevator inspector), working at a time when the Department of Elevator Inspectors is sharply divided between two approaches to the inspection of elevators: the Empirical approach, and the Intuitionist approach. When the unthinkable happens and an elevat ...more
Sep 22, 2010 A.C. rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I am reading this for a class that I am taking on black postmodern fiction. The hallmarks of the postmodern style are there. It is clear that Whitehead read a fair amount of Pynchon and Barth due to the extensive presence of half-thoughts, sentence fragments, and commentary from the narrator. So, with regards to the class, I understand why it was assigned. On a personal level, I haven't been this bored reading a book in a while. I don't particularly like any of the characters. Lila Mae is rather ...more
Erik Evenson
There are many things to like about Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Institutionist: the prospect of reading about elevator inspectors (a subject, I’m pretty sure, no one has ever written about in fiction), the idealogical split between institutionist and empiricist inspectors (one group inspects elevators by observation and scrutiny, the other by ‘feel’. I’ll let you guess who does what), and elevators being a metaphor for almost everything important in life—“They go up, they go down. You ju ...more
Maybe more like a 4.5, but this book deserves to be rounded up, not down. Fabulous writing and wordplay, fabulous creation of a fascinating world that was almost real.

This novel takes place in a past that didn't exist--where the Elevator Inspectors are revered, in a great city that has achieved verticality (and seems to be c1930 New York, or even 1950). Lila Mae Watson is the first colored woman (author's terminology) to achieve her badge as an elevator inspector--and she is in Intuitionist, wit
Alan Chen
I'm a mystery buff, they're my guilty pleasure, but I like them to be complex and well written. This is both, but either the author is trying to cram too many ideas into the novel or isn't skillful enough to do it, because somewhere along the line the novel goes sideways. First, it's a mystery: Lisa Mae is an elevator inspector with a perfect record and when one of the elevators she inspected goes down she believes that she's been set up. Second, this is an alternative history novel where elevat ...more
Taryn Pierson
Jul 03, 2013 Taryn Pierson rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When Adam asked me what I was reading the other day, I responded, “It's called The Intuitionist. It's about race. And elevators.” He made a noise expressing both surprise and confusion, but pretty much left it alone. Like any good husband would, he reads my site. He knows he'll get better information out of me if he waits for the written version of my bookish thoughts.

So here it is: Lila Mae Watson is an elevator inspector in a New York-ish city full of high rises. The time period is as murky a
Skye Kilaen
Jan 28, 2017 Skye Kilaen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
So dense that I had to take breaks to rest my brain, and so good that I (almost) want to take a college lit class where it's on the syllabus so I can hear people say smart things about it. (But I hate school, so that's not happening.) Whitehead's writing is rich and textured. Every single "minor" character is memorable. Just freakin' amazing.

It actually reminded me of my fave book ever, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland, but without the wackiness. I don't know if enough people have read Vineland for tha
Mar 23, 2017 Drew rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
5+ out of 5. What I wouldn't give to pick this book up in 1999 and get in on the ground floor, as it were, of Colson Whitehead. His prose here, even at the outset of his career, dances and delights; his storytelling is gifted and compelling; his eye is as keen and striking as it is all these years later. This is a masterful debut, a masterful novel, and a masterful story - one that kept a smile on my face every time I thought about it, every time I picked it up, even if the sequences I read were ...more
May 01, 2007 Ben rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: eh...
Shelves: 2007
The Intuitionist is an odd little novel. The copy on the back cover does its best to make the story and tone of the book sound extra weird, while at the same time remaining fairly vague. And I suppose that's a fair representation of what you find inside. The novel's themes and even its setting make for a good jumping off point, but Whitehead continually does things in half measures.

The setting, obviously NYC but pointlessly vague, reminded me quite a bit of Quinsigamond, from Jack O'Connell's si
Mar 28, 2012 zxvasdf rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Intuitionism and Empiricism reflects the quintessential struggles of two distinct schools of thought - the most notable that comes to mind is the classical and quantum interpretations of physics. One is old school, dependent on the physical perusal of the objects themselves, solid and true. The other is metaphysics distilled into a mystic philosophy of the true nature of elevators. Problem is... one or another, they both work.

Race relations are different today, but Whitehead writes that sometime
Jul 26, 2011 Randall rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I'd have to spend some time and energy to truly explain what's so genius about this book, and that assumes I'm not missing a whole bunch of it's true brilliance.

The plot summary would likely have most shaking their head, thinking, "What the fish?" It sounds absurd. In some ways, it's really absurd.

Lots of room for interpretation here, but Whitehead is clearly tackling some major social topics and doing it with humor and a perceptive eye.

If your interest isn't piqued by the thought that elevat
Rita Arens
Jul 10, 2016 Rita Arens rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The writing itself is great. I do love a good allegory and am growing to love Colson Whitehead, although at times the connection in this, his first novel, between the schools of elevator thought and race relations seemed too vaguely drawn and other times too consciously connected. I wonder if this had been his tenth if it would've been different, though who am I to judge? Still, the dry wit is palpable at the Institute for Vertical Transport, where the Empiricists insist on visual inspections an ...more
Jul 17, 2009 Jane rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Written with a true love of the City, in this case an abstract, noir version of New York, the book posits a world in which the elevator has its own science and philosophy. In fact there are competing schools of Empiricists and Intuitionists, complete with their own thugs employed in the power struggles. Lila Mae Watson, the first "colored" elevator inspector, is a member of the latter school, and an unusual and appealing character. This is Whitehead's first novel and, given his great talent, you ...more
Laila (BigReadingLife)
This is possibly one of the hardest books to describe I've ever read. It's set in the past (somewhere from the 20s to the 40s?) in a metropolis (New York?.) It's part noir-ish mystery, part speculative fiction. It's about elevators and also a metaphor for race in America. The writing is generally fantastic, although I admit to skimming some paragraphs laden with technical elevator talk. I'm glad I read it, but it's one of the most perplexing books I've ever read. Still, I liked it.
Oct 20, 2015 Alex marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Kaion says, "For sci-fi noir meets race noir, see Colson Whitehead's spectacular The Intuitionist," and I'm all whaaaaat, sign me up.
Mar 26, 2017 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
I read a review of this book when it first appeared, in 2000, and thought it sounded intriguing, but I didn't get around to reading it until the author popped up with his acclaimed The Underground Railroad. It's not a perfect book, but it's one of the most original technological fantasias I've encountered. It digs deep into social, psychological, historical, and technological themes, and brings some inspiring insights to light.
Craig Andrade
Feb 19, 2017 Craig Andrade rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I recently read Colson Whitehead's latest book, "The Underground Railroad" - 2016 National Book Award winner - fell in love with his writing and searched his collection for more. "The Intuitionist," his debut novel did not disappoint. Written in a noir mystery style, Whitehead's unexpected world of elevator inspectors, gangsters and big boss politics is also an allegory on race and identity. Strong character development and dialogue matched with expert twist and turn storytelling make for a thor ...more
Pearse Anderson
10/10 Whitehead, 10/10!
For starters, I only realized at the end this was The Intuitionist, I thought mistakenly for all of my reading and discussion it was the Institutionist. Oop! On a better note, every aspect of this book was stellar. Sentences blew me away with their beauty, paragraphs ended perfectly, scenes were structured will intent and precision, characters were fleshy and interesting, every-fucking-thing worked. Even the things I didn't think were working I thought: WAIT! Colson Whiteh
Apr 24, 2012 Zach rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction, race
In which Whitehead uses the noir-"murder"-mystery and elevators to interrogate race in America.

Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman elevator inspector in some alternate-world New York City (never named as such, but... you can tell) where elevator inspection is a Very Big Deal.* This takes place in the 1950s or so (there’s a reference to Martin Luther King, Jr.), and while other reviewers have made much of its supposed science-fictional retro-futurism, I didn’t get that from the text at all -
Maurice Carlos Ruffin
There's a rich strain of American literature dealing with this nation's original sin, slavery and its residue. In fact, there's so much literature on the topic that I've heard quite a few times that there's nothing left to say. Enter Colson Whitehead's the Intuitionist, a book that manages to make the entire problem seem both familiar and alien at once.

Whitehead's strategy is a brilliant one, the kind of idea that must have struck him at an odd moment, like in the dentist's chair or while listen
Jul 09, 2009 Cheryl rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It took me a while to get into this book and to finish it, which is strange since it is not that long, but it was worth it. I couldn't help but think about how I would feel about this book if Obama had not been elected; it is a powerful story about race set against this surreal world (1950's maybe) where there is an Art of Elevator Inspection and you are either an Empiricist who examines the minute physical and mechanical details of the elevator or you are an Intuitionist and inspect the elevato ...more
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I'm the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. I've also written a book of essays about my home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction ac ...more
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