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The Intuitionist

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  10,893 ratings  ·  1,319 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
Kindle Edition, 273 pages
Published May 23rd 2012 by Anchor (first published 1999)
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Richard Becker It depends on why you are hesitant. I was dazzled by its headiness. lush writing, and originality.
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J.L.   Sutton
Dec 12, 2016 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
Kevin Kelsey
Posted at Heradas Review

The time period is difficult to pin down. 1950s, 1960s? The setting is never explicitly said to be New York City, but it is. There are clues peppered here and there but the whole thing also has a timeless, every-major-city quality to it. This world is exactly like ours, except elevators are a big, big deal. Their creation has shaped the form and structure of cities; buildings with arrangements of floors vertically stacked ad infinitum up into the sky, a concept itself onl
Jun 16, 2012 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 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
Jennifer (aka EM)
Mar 20, 2011 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
☘Misericordia☘ ⚡ϟ⚡⛈⚡☁ ❇️❤❣
A seriously strange read. It seems that there are 2 ways to check an elevator's safety: Intuitionist and Empiricist ones. Basically, the elevators are central thing to the plot: theoretical elevators, the history of elevators, etc etc etc.
Way too much importance is put on the protagonist's race: I've no remotest idea why the inspector's skin color should be important in 1999? Hope it's all a metaphor for smth else entirely.
And all the ragtag weirdos? John and Jim? Gah.
The whole thing is hypnoti
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
Joy D
Unusual mix of crime mystery, science fiction, and speculative fiction. The setting is unnamed, likely an alternate version of mid twentieth century New York. Protagonist Lila Mae Watson, a graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport, is the first black female elevator inspector in a society in which elevator operations are considered of utmost importance, as the future lies in verticality. An elevator inspector is a valued position, approaching celebrity status.

Lila Mae is an Intuitionist
Jun 13, 2007 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
Maurice Ruffin
Dec 29, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 22, 2010 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
Althea Ann
Oct 09, 2012 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
Jonathan K
Aug 01, 2021 rated it liked it
Unusual, LONG and a bit slow

A debut novel by an author whose popularity has grown since, he demonstrates his ability to merge mystery within the context of elevators, which admittedly is unique in itself. Like all Colson's stories, race plays a role in the plot, characters and time frame. He sends the reader on the journey of Lila Mae, an elevator inspector and member of the Intuitionist sect, which for the unfamiliar, stands apart from Industry mainstream. Without missing a beat he sends us di
Jun 17, 2007 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
Jul 03, 2010 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. . . ...more
Z. F.
"There will be no redemption because the men who run this place do not want redemption. They want to be as near to hell as they can."

The Intuitionist is definitely a debut novel, with all the good and bad stuff that usually entails. You can tell from page one that Whitehead is super smart, high on the beauty and versatility of language, and like a lot of first-time novelists (or musicians or filmmakers or whatever) he seems determined to squeeze everything he's learned so far about the ways
Jul 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
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
A peculiar halting noir with two main features. The story is one of mid-twentieth century type bigotry set in a Steampunk-like world where there are two battling philosophies on the nature and function of elevators, the Empiricists and the Intuitionists. The protagonist is an African-American Intuitionist elevator inspector-ess who takes the role of the detective and becomes something more than that. Among the author’s various accomplishments are the avoidance of all the puns and simple metaphor ...more
Skye Kilaen
Jan 28, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 0-genre-scifi
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, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This a beautiful, strange, unflinching, mysterious little book. The lead character is Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman to ever earn the badge of Elevator Inspector in a city obsessed with verticality. The Department of Elevator Inspectors is a sprawling institution, with an attached university to train its members and associations with the city government, major manufacturers, and the mob. A local election is coming up, with a fierce race being run by men from two different factions: the E ...more
May 06, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5-stars, fiction
I read Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, in hard cover. I am a reader mostly of science fiction, but had read Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad the week before. I felt URR was ok, but can’t really see why it is being lionized. But I was in the library, and looked for the shelf to see what his earlier books might be like. Among others, I found Zone One and The Intuitionist. Not caring much for zombies, I picked this one, and am glad I did.

Ostensibly, the story is about a confli
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
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. ...more
Oct 20, 2015 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. ...more
K.J. Charles
DNF at 36% when it took an abrupt left turn into violent on-page torture. Just not in the mood for that.
Sep 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a very odd but ultimately outstanding book about an African-American elevator inspector.

The opening 100 pages kept me asking lots of questions and wondering what I was reading, but as Whitehead's narrative continued, I eventually became hooked on the protagonist and her bizarre journey to unravel a mystery surrounding an elevator accident at a brand new building, a building that she herself had recently inspected. The final 50 pages were gripping, and the revelations that they dispense
Feb 24, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Another amazing novel from Colson Whitehead. This one really had me thinking about all the big questions: intuition v. rationality; origins of religion and the nature of faith; role and importance of mythmaking; social uplift and race relations. And there is a fun mystery on top of it all. Can't recommend this enough! ...more
May 01, 2007 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
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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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