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The Intuitionist

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Two warring factions in the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a bustling metropolis vie for dominance: the Empiricists, who go by the book and rigorously check every structural and mechanical detail, and the Intuitionists, whose observational methods involve meditation and instinct.

Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female inspector and a devout Intuitionist with the highest accuracy rate in the department, is at the center of the turmoil. An elevator in a new municipal building has crashed on Lila Mae’s watch, fanning the flames of the Empiticist-Intuitionist feud and compelling Lila Mae to go underground to investigate. As she endeavors to clear her name, she becomes entangled in a web of intrigue that leads her to a secret that will change her life forever.

A dead-serious and seriously funny feat of the imagination, The Intuitionist conjures a parallel universe in which latent ironies in matters of morality, politics, and race come to light, and stands as the celebrated debut of an important American writer.

255 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1999

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About the author

Colson Whitehead

33 books15.9k followers

COLSON WHITEHEAD is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of eleven works of fiction and nonfiction, and is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, for The Nickel Boys and The Underground Railroad, which also won the National Book Award. A recipient of MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships, he lives in New York City.

Harlem Shuffle is the first book in The Harlem Trilogy. The second, Crook Manifesto, will be published in 2023.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,661 reviews
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews928 followers
October 31, 2019
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 the plot at least superficially fits the genre.

Amid whirling conspiracies, Lila Mae, the first woman of color to join the ranks of an occupation dominated by white men, attempts to find out who set her up. In doing so, she searches for what’s referred to as the black box. This fabled black box is rumored to contain knowledge of the perfect elevator, but there are shady characters who don’t want Lila Mae finding this box or revealing its contents. Early on, it’s apparent The Intuitionist is meant to be read on many levels…as a commentary on race and society as well as how we know what we know. I plan to reread this novel to see what I missed the first time. Wonderful writing and an interesting and engaging read, 4.5 stars rounded up.
Profile Image for Kevin Kelsey.
412 reviews2,220 followers
April 12, 2020
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 only possible as a result of reliable, mechanical elevation. Those elevators highly utilized only because they are safe, safe only because of the skilled elevator inspectors laying down the law regarding their maintenance, and upkeep.

All of this is true in our world as well, but here it’s more than just a technicality, it’s elemental as a foundation of their entire modern society; an alternate Americana. Elevators and elevator inspectors are given the same level of awe that airplanes and pilots once had in our version of America. Just as the airplane compressed our world’s surface horizontally, elevators compressed theirs vertically, bringing the unrealized potential of the sky down to earth.

Elevators aren’t just a large aspect of the literal plot of the novel, but used as a metaphor for the ongoing racial struggle of black Americans, among other things. It’s handled elegantly, and I don’t want to touch on it all that much for fear of spoiling the experience. Suffice it to say there are several layers to this elevator-as-metaphor aspect, and they have a unique dialogue with one another.

Almost every corner of the novel mirrors, and folds on itself. The narrative is broken into two sections: Down, and Up: a fall from grace, and a rise from the ashes. A literal crashing down of one elevator, and a possible rising of another, perfected model; a “black box”. The dual and dueling, mirrored approaches to elevator inspection, Empiricism and Intuitionism. The former being the familiar method of visually inspecting, and testing components to ensure their reliability, checking them against tolerances and allowances. The latter embodying what you might call a holistic approach; feeling and communicating mentally, or spiritually with the elevator in an effort to understand what issues may be affecting it. The concept of intuitionism is where a lot of the surreal comedy of the novel stems. Can you imagine a sillier approach to checking a mechanical system? It’s all very Pynchonesque.

This book is an exemplary illustration of the power speculative fiction wields as a form of literature. Because of course, intuiting what ails an elevator is completely ridiculous in the real world, but it’s oddly endearing in an America slightly off from our own. Empiricists don’t respect Intuitionists, but they can’t argue with their results, which statistically, are ever so slightly more effective. It’s a slap in the face for those living a life guided by rules and measurements, when “feeling” a system merits slightly better results than doing your best to follow the rigid structure you are trying to impose on the world. Couple this with the double standards governing white America and black America, men and women, and it becomes poetic. This is used to show that there is always more than one way to approach any topic, any reality that you can interact with. That only using our eyes, can sometimes blind us in other ways, to other things. Reality is what we make it, and limiting ourselves to just one sense can be a dangerous practice indeed. You have to be able to fathom change before you can start to affect it, and this novel has a lot to say about where innovation and change originate, and how best to implement them.

The Intuitionist reminded me, in an odd way, of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I am unsure if it’s the somewhat similar setting, similar themes of an underclass breaking upward into America proper, or the general mystery aspect of the narrative. Both were published in 1999, maybe there’s a similar cultural background at play? Whatever the reason, I find them comparable novels.
Profile Image for carol..
1,576 reviews8,236 followers
September 5, 2013

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.

The writing in Zone One (my review) was astonishing enough that I resolved to seek out more of his work. The message was bleak enough that I wasn't in a hurry about it. Though I picked up John Henry Days some time ago for a song, it was finding The Intuitionist that brought me back to him--I find a little mystery hard to resist. Except it wasn't, not really. Allegory and all that. Post-modern literature something-something. Except better, because it's not self-consciously ironic or a parody. It's sincere.

On the surface, it's a pulpy noir fiction, set in a roughly parallel world to ours, ugly racism warts and all, in an unnamed New York, during perhaps the 1940s. It's about a woman who works as an elevator inspector, a member of the prominent and politically powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The elevator doctrine has undergone a schismatic shift in the past decade, after Mr. James Fulton developed the theory of Intuition, the discipline of inspecting an elevator by analyzing one's experience of it. Lila Mae is the first colored woman in the department, only the second colored person in the local chapter, and a disciple of Intuitionism. When a brand new elevator crashes (thankfully, without passengers), it seems she and the Intuitionists are being set up to take the fall and enable an easy political win for the Empiricists. Lila, unsure how to defend herself, takes a role in solving the issue after the head of the Intuitionists approaches her with a tempting lure--designs for Fulton's mythical black box seems to be in play but missing, a Holy Grail of elevator design that will revolutionize the city.

In one sense it works. The surface plot is interesting--there are, after all, secret societies, company cars, a muck-raking newspaperman, gangsters and potential lovers. The story holds, Lila Mae is sufficiently developed beyond allegory, the city is full of rich detail, the puzzle of the elevator guild interesting and the possible blueprint alluring. Weaving through it is Lila's acknowledgement of the experience of being an African-American woman, her history, and her gradual awakening in the city. In another sense, it feels very constructed, very designed, meant to educate and explore, and not quite so much to feel.

The Intuitionist is Whitehead's first published work. I was a little disappointed to not see the same level of prose that I loved in Zone One. Bleak as it was, the imagery in Zone was mesmerizing and intricate. In contrast, this is a book not necessarily of language, but of ideas. Elevators have, in essence, transformed the city, allowing it to reach new heights. A new elevator--the fabled black box--would do the same. Intuitionists are transforming the field, and people of color are transforming themselves. It's fascinating and complex, and much like an elevator--gears, weights, counterweights, artistry, and while the purpose is clear, the mechanism of the parallels are not so obvious that the reader feels overpowered.

Unfortunately, it also, much like the elevator, misses the feel factor. I enjoyed it as a read, I was intellectually engaged, but it reminded me a bit of high school English class, without the note-passing (we didn't have texting in those days). Perhaps it's because Lila Mae is somewhat disenfranchised from herself--as she goes through her life one step removed, I found I remained somewhat removed as well. Still, it was interesting, and pleasantly complex. I don't regret the time spent, and feel rather pleased about exercising those mental muscles. It definitely piques my interest in the rest of the Whitehead cannon.

Three and a half stars, rounding up because this author can write.

Cross posted at http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2013/0...
11 reviews
September 6, 2007
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 elevators and elevator inspectors has been lifted (pun intended) up to a level of prominence rivaling special police forces in large cities. Everything centers around the elevator inspectors, their upcoming guild election, and the corruption inherent in the organization with ties to organized crime and pork-barrel politicians. Colson's elevator world is full of suspense and intrigue.

I know it sounds very odd, but it works. Lila Mae Watson is the (unnamed, but very New York-like) city's first female African-american elevator inspector. She is also a detective trying to discover who committed a heinous murder (the victim: an elevator under her jurisdiction) and set her up to take the fall. At the same time, she is searching for the missing notebooks of the father of elevator theory, James Fulton, who (it is surmised) has drafted a design for the theoretically perfect elevator, known as the "black box". Everyone wants to get their hands on those papers!

Throughout the story Colson has woven philosophical discussions about how we know what we know couched in the elevator inspector's world of the intuitionists vs. the empiricists. The racial component plays a crucial role as well using elevators as a metaphor for racial upward mobility. You really have to read this book to appreciate it fully. I'm planning to read it again so that can really piece it all together.
Profile Image for Jennifer (formerly Eccentric Muse).
468 reviews1,000 followers
March 29, 2011
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 immersed in a story. I admire this in the same way I do an elegant five-course meal, but what I was looking for was more mac-and-cheese. The fundamental premise has an absurdity to it that I normally respond to, and there are sections of prose that truly elevated (ha) the thing to 4-star levels.

I stand by my last status update comment which is that my sense is that this was trying to be too many things at once and for me, it just didn't come together -- or rather, I didn't have the brain power and focus to bring it together. In particular, the allegory seemed to be interpretable (is that a word?) in at least four different ways. And was it supposed to be a literal portrayal - or a purely conceptual one? If the former, it's muddled. If the latter, it's too remote to involve me emotionally. If both, I just don't have the ability to manage the relationship between figure/ground that is required for the thing to work.

It's about race, yes, sure, or so we're told. I mean, that seems obvious. But it's also about all kinds of other black/white societal structures - class, religion, gender, politics. And when something can be everything, then it ends up being nothing.

And then we have this big concept thing wrapped around a noir-like "mystery" that wasn't very mysterious (not to mention, not very dramatic. I can anthropomorphize a lot of things - I've been known to cry at the IKEA commercial when the desk lamp is set out by the curb in the rain. But I couldn't get there with these "elevators.")

So between all that, and the fact that Lila Mae Watson was such a cold fish, it left me feeling a bit m'eh. Definitely required more attention than I was able to give it, so I net out at a 2.5ish.
Profile Image for Christy.
Author 5 books400 followers
February 21, 2008
In an interview with Salon.com 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 being too white, and Ralph Ellison calling the Black Arts writers too militant and narrow, not universal enough. Now I think there are a lot more of us writing and a lot more different areas we're exploring. It's not as polemicized. I'm dealing with serious race issues, but I'm not handling them in a way that people expect."

His description of the history of African American writing of the 20th century is pretty spot-on, as is his perceived position in this timeline. Whitehead does not need to be as narrow in his focus, nor does he risk so much in abandoning narrowness of focus for broadness of appeal. Simultaneously, though, his book illustrates the falseness of this very dichotomy, for he is in fact dealing with issues of prejudice, racial uplift, passing, and the glass ceiling, but he does so in a fascinating and fun story about elevator inspectors, full of political intrigue and noir-ish elements. But, as Whitehead goes on to point out in the Salon.com interview, he is far from the first black writer to attempt to break down this dichotomy. Ishmael Reed, Samuel Delany, and even Jean Toomer (in the 1920s) beat him to it. His approach is perhaps particularly appropriate to the historical, political, and intellectual climate of the late 20th century, however.

Whitehead's novel is a quintessentially postmodern tale in its combination of elements from multiple genres (science fiction, crime/detective fiction) and its varied tone and style (sometimes fun and humorous, at other times elevated and lovely, and at other times fast and adventurous); it also stands out from the postmodern pack in its explicit concern with political issues of race and gender.
February 8, 2021
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 hypnotic, I give it that but dull as hell with some gratiutous torture thrown in for good measure.
Jim and John are neat ransackers. When their cases return to their homes, they suffer only the vaguest sense of loss, a nagging perplexity, and with so many other possible causes of that sense of loss, few suspect that these two men have been pawing their things. John sees himself as a crucial gear in the city’s mechanism, a freelance poltergeist of metropolitan disquiet. Jim and John’s employers are proud of them, and when they receive their briefing on tonight’s activities, Jim and John will not be reprimanded for failure. The particular organization they work for can afford to forgive, as long as that forgiveness is tracked and tabulated like absenteeism, pencil theft, fire damage (accident, insurance fraud), and at the end of each quarter, the books tally. (c)
It’s always nice when a good mob comes together. (c)
The Four Questions?”
“As put forth by Mettleheim: How did this happen? How could this happen? Is it exceptional? How will it be avoided in the future?” (c)
Some nicknames Empiricists have for their renegade colleagues: swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis. All terms belonging to the nomenclature of dark exotica, the sinister foreign. Except for Houdini, who nonetheless had something swarthy about him.
Some counter-nicknames from the Intuitionists: flat-earthers, ol’ nuts and bolts, stress freaks (“checking for signs of stress” being a commonly uttered phrase when the Empirically trained are out running the streets), Babbits, collators (this last word preferably hissed for optimum disdain).
No one can quite explain why the Intuitionists have a 10 percent higher accuracy rate than the Empiricists. (c)
484 reviews32 followers
August 29, 2022
This is a great first novel by celebrated writer Colson Whitehead, in which an alternate faction of elevater workers are involved in racism, dirty polatics and the mob. The black woman who is the inspecter of elevaters and an intuitionists, is drawn into it all where she learns a secret.
I recommend this book to all.
Profile Image for Shepherd.
7 reviews10 followers
June 22, 2007
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, Whitehead has avoided any attempt to bring his allegory down to earth. When this works, this book is thrilling. When it doesn't, which for me was most of the time, it is 255 pages about elevators. As someone who used to ride elevators up and down all day for a living (more or less), I know how boring they can be.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,072 reviews240 followers
February 17, 2020
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, basing her inspections upon feelings. The competing approach, Empiricism, bases inspections upon traditional measurements. She inspects an elevator, and, when it crashes, believes she has been framed. An election will soon take place for the leadership of the powerful Elevator Guild, and one of the candidates has ties to the mob. Lila Mae becomes caught up in a power struggle between rival groups of elevator inspectors and must hide out while trying to uncover the suspected conspiracy. While in hiding, she discovers the existence of plans for a perfect elevator, designed by the founder of Intuitionism, which would revolutionize the elevator industry.

This book is creative and well-written. At times it feels rather disjointed, jumping to various topics that do not readily fit into the storyline. There is also an allegorical layer regarding race and social change, relating elevators to upward mobility and taking society to task for prejudice and inequality. It takes a bit of work to keep track all the plot threads and layers of meaning. I found it thought-provoking, but not an overly enjoyable reading experience. I can recommend Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys and plan to read more of his work.
Profile Image for Maurice Ruffin.
Author 10 books448 followers
December 31, 2013
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 listening to maudlin elevator music. The book approaches America's racial struggle through the struggles of one Lila Mae Watson, an African American elevator inspector in a timeless, nameless city that looks and feels like 1950s New York put through a scanner darkly. It's not the 1950s, though. And it's not New York either because in Lila's world elevators are treated with more cultural reverence than sports cars and politicians rise to power based on their views on elevator inspecting.

Keeping up?

Yes, this is one of those books where the setup sounds faintly ridiculous. It's the fact that the book works--an does it ever--that's a testament to Whitehead's genius.

At it's heart, the novel might be broken down like this: 50 % hard-boiled detective novel, 30% speculative fiction, 20% literary meditation on the nature of being part of the underclass in a powerful nation. Of course, I say it might be broken down this way because this analysis doesn't really capture the essence of what is achieved. Yes, Lila must solve a mystery, and the mystery pulls the reader along nicely from intro to outro. And yes, there's some down right kooky speculation on what it would be like to live a world where elevators have the cultural importance of a beeper in the 1990s or an iPad up until a year ago (sorry ghost of Steve Jobs). There's a magazine mentioned in the book called Lift that somehow seems like a cross between Esquire and Playboy.

But what really makes this work go is how the novel does what all great genre books do: it gives a world that is strikingly different from our own except for in the ways that matter. Blacks, women, immigrants, the poor, all appear in the book as they would appear down the street from wherever you're reading this post. Bigotry, misogyny, and xenophobia all trot across the stage in believable fashion.

If there's one knock against the novel, it's that Lila--by design no doubt--is an introverted, cold-hearted character. The reasons for this are well supported in the book. However, just because I understand her, doesn't mean I enjoy her company.

Yet, the novel is a great success because of Whitehead's unwavering eye and amazing linguistic skill.

Worth reading.
Profile Image for A.C..
90 reviews13 followers
December 14, 2011
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 dispassionate and all of the other characters are more or less shells, which don't provide for much compassion from a reader's point of view. It's like watching a noir movie but with less humor and intrigue.

As other commenters have noted, the allegory in this story is very, very simple but goes on for way too long. I get it. Elevators are symbolic of the black definition to define one's self in the world whether that be through understanding the experience or connecting with the physical presence of being black. I don't need 200+ pages of it. In addition, this is combined with the 1930s-esque race problems that plague the character, issues which add nothing interesting to the entire dialogue about race in America. I already know his arguments and they were done much better in a different book called Invisible Man. I don't know if you've heard of that one. It's not too important or anything.

As a result of these two aspects, going from page to page in this book has left my spirit in a space where it wants to die. It's commentary on race is sloppy, and the writing puts me to sleep. Honestly, this is disappointing for me to write because I loved Colson Whitehead when he read in Iowa City last spring. He was engaging, funny, clever, and had nice dreadlocks. I really want to like this book. The sad truth is the one I've already expressed: I really don't.
Profile Image for Erik Evenson.
27 reviews1 follower
July 13, 2009
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 just have to understand why they do that.” I enjoyed all of these things thoroughly. The only part I didn’t like about the book was reading it. Does this make sense? No? Ok. I suppose what I mean is that the idea of the book is really a great one and Whitehead is at his best when he is describing the heady theories and schools of thought when it comes to elevator operation. I assume all of them were his own creation and for that alone this book is worth reading.
The problem is that that’s really the only thing this book has got going for it when you actually start reading it. I’ve heard a lot of buzz about this book and was excited to read it. But now, looking back at it, I feel like there wasn’t much of a story. The climax fell flat and I didn’t feel much for the characters because I didn’t feel like they were characters, but instead representations of ideas and ideologies dressed in human skin. I found myself hastily reading through the plot to the bits about the elevators because, weirdly enough, it was the elevators, not the story, that kept my attention.
And here’s another gripe: many of the lines strained, tried to make a metaphor where there wasn’t one. An example: “He is fat and pink…In person he is too flesh, a handful of raw meat. Dogs have been known to follow him, optimistic.” That last sentence grates on me to the point that I can’t ignore it. I’ve never known a fat person’s fat to attract dogs. And one more thing that bugged me: every time a new section started, we wouldn’t get the person’s name until halfway into the passage. Now I don’t think this is bad in and of itself, but when it happened every time a section started, I found myself hoping that all this work I was doing—keeping track of everybody, going back and reading passages over once I found out who the scene was about—would pay off. Many times it didn’t and that pissed me off.
All that said, I still found myself underlining passages, excited that I will perhaps revisit them sometime when I need to know about elevator theory.
Profile Image for Vderevlean.
466 reviews140 followers
December 27, 2019
3,5 de fapt.

Un roman inteligent construit pe un scenariu ce aduce cu romanele noir, însă combină mult ironia și umorul cu critica socială și rasială din SUA. O poveste despre lifturi, mafie, intrigi politice și, de ce nu?, liftul perfect, mult dorit de toată lumea. Un conflict între două curente filozofice: empiriștii și intuiționiștii, conflict tranșat cu toate armele posibile. Recunosc că m-a surprins plăcut acest roman și ideile autorului. Păcat de final, unde construcția cam scârțâie.
Aici mai multe detalii:
Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,233 reviews1,047 followers
May 18, 2013

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 wrong!

'The Intuitionist' is set in an alternate-history late-1950s-early-1960's, in a United States where elevator technology has changed the world by introducing verticality to urban centers. Moving far beyond mere functionality, elevators are a both a rich field of study and a lucrative business. There are business conventions. There are corporate rivalries (and espionage). There is a conflict between the two main 'schools' of elevator inspection theory (The Empiricists and the Intuitionists). And there is the mystical philosophy of Theoretical Elevators.

In this world, we are introduced to Lila Mae - an excellent elevator inspector, an Intuitionist, brilliant and passionate about her field, and a trailblazer - the first black woman to become an Inspector in an overwhelmingly white boys' club.

A terrible accident occurs - and it looks like Lila Mae is going to be framed as the one culpable. To clear her name, she will have to both navigate a hostile world and delve deeper into the hidden secrets of the history of elevator inspection.

Colson Whitehead's writing is just gorgeous, and the intricate combination of social commentary, philosophy and technology woven through the story means, I believe, that this book would appeal both to fans of steampunk and cyberpunk - it's doing a lot of the same things, just in a different era. (What if William Gibson tackled the recent past, rather than the near future?)

Profile Image for Jonathan K (Max Outlier).
645 reviews129 followers
August 1, 2021
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 directly into The Case of a Fallen elevator car, and from there, a labyrinth of back story, elevator history, with copious dabs of racial profiling. I found this similar to other books he's written, though this is the ONLY one I struggled through completely. It's first person POV is akin to detective stories with carefully thought out characters, but overall, it's pacing and length caused drowsiness. While I'm no authority on his others, for a debut, its reasonably well done, though I personally found the subject matter boring. After all we ARE talking about elevators, which aren't exactly rocket science :)
Profile Image for Dan.
461 reviews4 followers
October 25, 2021

Colson Whitehead builds The Intuitionist on a great cityscape and faux urban history and one great character. The development of elevators in big cities seems like an unlikely subject for a novel, but Whitehead succeeds in combining unions, the mob, government bureaucracy, and race into a gripping mélange. The Intuitionist is a remarkable debut novel, foretelling both the many strengths and the occasional weaknesses of some of his later novels: building intriguing characters in imagined yet convincing historical settings, which mostly but not entirely redeem a sometimes overly complicated and confusing plot.
90 reviews1 follower
June 19, 2007
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 pacing really works -- it's structured with the first half titled "Down" and the second half "Up," and accordingly, everyone is out of real trouble by the midpoint of the book, although there are plenty more plot twists left. But even then, it's still fun to read. Just not so suspenseful.
Profile Image for Jonfaith.
1,890 reviews1,419 followers
January 12, 2013
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. . .
Profile Image for Z. F..
298 reviews93 followers
March 21, 2019
"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 of the world into the comparatively tiny vessel of this single work. That energy is infectious, and Whitehead has undeniable talent and a lot of cool ideas. (Zadie Smith's White Teeth is another good example of this more benign strain of First-Time Novelist Syndrome.)

But then of course the flipside is that you have this super smart, high-on-language debut novelist who hasn't quite figured the whole novel thing out yet but who's nevertheless hellbent on proving to the world exactly how brilliant and lyrical and insightful he is, and that routine—natural and timeless though it may be—can be hard on us innocent readers.

We're left bobbing along on this absolute torrent of language, this flood of page-long paragraphs about the sublimity of the door-close button or the growth of a particular kind of mildew on a particular kind of faux-wood paneling, and when we cry out—gasping for air between waves—"Please Mr. Whitehead, could I maybe get some clarification about what this character is trying to achieve in this scene, or even just what's going on here in a general sense?" another very lovely block of metaphor-laden clauses pounds us beneath the surf. Think Michael Chabon at his most florid, every sentence milked for maximum philosophic effect, with a lot of nifty words like "petrous" and "gravid" thrown in to finish it (or us?) off.

The blurb on my copy compares The Intuitionist to Toni Morrison, but blurbs are dumb and Morrison is always white reviewers' go-to comparison for up-and-coming black writers. The real, obvious parallel here is to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man . Whitehead pays homage to Ellison in everything from his vaguely hallucinatory pre-Civil Rights NYC setting to his soaring flights of linguistic fancy to his emphasis on interfactional squabbling and his inescapable central metaphor for race in America: blindness/invisibility for Ellison, elevators for Whitehead.

But the difference is that Ellison was writing largely from his own life, while Whitehead is writing (speculative) historical fiction; and whereas Ellison, perplexing though he can be, successfully sticks the landing with his big unifying metaphor intact, Whitehead doesn't really ever succeed in making the point he's trying to. It's not that he isn't dedicated to the elevator thing—this book has elevators out the wazoo, just pages and pages of the care and maintenance of elevators—but the approach is weirdly literal, a lot of sci-fi-style jargon-dumping that never quite reaches a more transcendent symbolic truth. It's like if Moby-Dick was only the chapters about ropes and blowholes and whaling minutiae, with Melville kinda sitting in the background going "Really makes you think, huh?"

Or maybe I'm just an idiot, I don't know. A lot of people on here seem to like this book, and on paper I like it too; but the actual experience of reading it simply wasn't very rewarding. There's some fun twisty-turny noir stuff going on, but the twists and turns are mostly more confusing than illuminating and end up muddying that central metaphor even further, too. Our protagonist, Lila Mae, is never explicated in any detail, and (as my equally-unsold fiancée very rightly pointed out when we talked about the book this morning) she's defined by that special kind of flatness endemic to female protagonists in the hands of male authors who don't really understand women. And hell, if we wanna get right down to it, elevators and the art of elevator inspection just aren't super enthralling novelistic subject matter to begin with, no matter how rapturously the characters themselves go on about the future of verticality and the promise of the "Second Elevation." Maybe I'm a rube, but I'll take invisibility or a man-eating albino whale over common modes of transport as a literary conceit any day, metaphorical or not.

I guess I should mention here at the end that I've never read The Underground Railroad or any of Whitehead's other fiction, and though I wasn't blown away by this one I'd still like to give him another try sometime. It's worth saying that if you liked Railroad, I can definitely see why The Intuitionist might be of more interest than it was to me. If nothing else, it's easy to imagine this as a precursor to the more mature, more acclaimed alternate history exploration of American racism Whitehead would go on to produce seventeen years later—the harbinger, if you will, of his own authorial Second Elevation.
Profile Image for Taryn.
1,211 reviews190 followers
January 27, 2015
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 as the setting; the elevator technology is highly developed, but the inspectors have typewriters on their desks. I've seen the book described as noir, and that's exactly what it is—picture everything in grayscale, and men in dark hats puffing on cigars. Lila Mae has worked hard to get where she is: she's the first-ever woman of color to be hired as an inspector. Unsurprisingly, her coworkers, overwhelmingly white and male, don't exactly roll out the red carpet when she joins their ranks, especially because she is of the new and controversial Intuitionist school of elevator inspecting. She is an outlier in just about every way possible, but she keeps her head down and throws all her energy and effort into the job.

And she's good at it—until one day, an elevator in a flagship municipal building goes into freefall just after Lila Mae has deemed it safe for use. Suddenly she is at the center of a political whirlwind, with everyone from journalists to mob bosses circling her and sniffing for blood. Everyone has an agenda, some of them well-hidden, and it soon becomes clear that the only person Lila Mae can trust is herself.

I finished The Intuitionist this morning, and while I realize saying it's “about race” is as helpful a descriptor as if I termed rain “fairly dampish,” its complex themes are still churning around in my mind. It hasn't coalesced for me yet. This feels like the kind of book you could read in a literature class and discuss for about a million years. As for the elevator part, it seemed an odd choice to me at first, particularly as I struggled through passages of technical information about how elevators operate and the many ways they can fail, but by the end I could see how fitting it is, what with the upward/downward mobility connotations and the political dichotomy between the Intuitionists and Empiricists.

Fortunately, I've already graduated college, so I don't have to write a thoughtful essay analyzing all the moving parts of this book. I'll just let my thoughts continue to bubble around in my head and encourage you to read this book yourself so that you can have bubbles too.

More book recommendations by me at www.readingwithhippos.com
Profile Image for Mike.
502 reviews378 followers
July 25, 2023
This book just didn't jive with me. I liked the premise: an early to mid-century New York (never explicitly named but there are plenty of references to it) in a world where elevators are a REALLY big deal and elevator inspectors have their own guild and competing philosophies. Whitehead does a delightful job building up Elevators as a cultural force, establishing a colorful and well thought-out history of their development, both technologically and in the business sense. It struck me as a fascinating premise, especially with a wonderful MacGuffin in the from of a "perfect" elevator thrown into the mix, but the writing just did not resonate with me. I felt that the prose often used a $10 word when a dime word would have worked just as well. I also felt very removed form the story, like I was watching it through a window instead of being immersed in it. I kept reading for the sake of seeing how the plot resolved (which was not terribly strong in my opinion), not for the characters.
Profile Image for Phyllis.
563 reviews124 followers
September 2, 2016
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 elevator Lila Mae inspected goes into catastrophic free-fall in the midst of a mayoral speaking event, she is thrown into the deep bowels of the social politics surrounding elevator inspection as she tries to clear her name. After all, Lila Mae is never, ever wrong about elevator inspection, but it turns out she has lots still to learn about race, for which elevator inspection stands as allegory.
Profile Image for Maia.
Author 27 books2,542 followers
April 5, 2019
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 Empiricists, who take elevators literally, and examine them by looking at their pieces; and the Intuitionists, who listen to the sounds of an elevator and intuit it's workings by a kind of synesthesia. Lila Mae is an Intuitionist, perhaps the best living Intuitionist, with a 100% success rate and an almost spiritual understanding of her craft. Which makes it even more shocking when an elevator she has recently inspected goes into total freefall, a catastrophic accident at a crucial moment. Was it sabotage? Has Lila Mae been set up, and if so, by whom? And what to make of the rumored plans of a "black box", a perfect elevator, which are being whispered of throughout the Department?

The subject of this mystery (elevators? really?) is so bizarre that it leads an almost dreamy quality to some of the characters' concerns. However, Lila Mae's experiences of institutionalized racism are firmly grounded and never shied away from. This contrast- the levity of the absurd, the gravity of the real- is what makes this book so great. This was my first dip into Colson Whitehead's writing and I will definitely be reading more!
Profile Image for Mark.
Author 2 books11 followers
February 11, 2017
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 metaphors that spring to mind, including who is taking the fall when an elevator plunges to its destruction and the significance of the elevation of the African-American characters to become elevator inspectors. Ultimately, I think the reader’s question will be, “Is there some other message for me here in this complex construction?” If I knew, I would rate this more highly.
Profile Image for Skye Kilaen.
Author 14 books319 followers
February 5, 2023
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 that to be helpful in any way. ;)
Profile Image for Laila.
1,316 reviews47 followers
August 3, 2016
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.
Profile Image for Mijo Stumpf.
59 reviews2 followers
March 6, 2023
This world of warring elevator inspectors in pseudo-New York of the 1940s is thick with metaphor, as Colson Whitehead invents a world where elevating yourself is LITERALLY raising in elevation. I think this one is really special.
Profile Image for Tomislav.
1,002 reviews68 followers
May 6, 2018
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 conflict between two schools of elevator safety inspection – the Empiricists and the Intuitionists – who detect problems in elevators by the means indicated by their names. The Intuitionists were founded by James Fulton, a brilliant but eccentric theorist, now deceased. Lila Mae Watson is a practitioner of Fulton’s principles in late 1950s New York. She is also the first black woman to pass the tests and be accepted into the seedy white-guy ranks of the Department of Elevator Inspectors. There is an Elevator Inspector’s Guild election coming up, and Lila Mae gets caught up in the meatgrinder between the two factions, that are aligned with rival elevator manufacturers, making use of their government, organized crime, and shady trade journalist connections.

As well as a noir mystery, this book also alludes to the varying black experience in white America. It explores the dilemma of light-skinned blacks who pass for white, and the roles of first-black, second-black, in a white organization, and the blending of backgrounds and cultures in an urban setting. Aside from that, parallels are drawn to the contrast between empiricism and post-modernism. The ascending and descending elevators, teasingly align with both the race and philosophy axes, giving plenty of opportunities for the philosophically inclined reader to ponder the implications.

At the same time, it’s comical to see so much development made out of such a tiny aspect of our civilization – elevator inspection, that most of us take for granted. If there is any fault I can think of, it would be that the book is thematically overloaded. But all part of the fun, as far as I’m concerned.
Profile Image for Dree.
1,618 reviews48 followers
November 25, 2015
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, with the best record of anyone in the department. It is an election year, the the Intuitionist (inspect and diagnose elevators by feel and intuition) and Empirical (inspect and diagnose by-the-book, with intense physical inspection) candidates for Guild (of Elevator Inspectors) Chair are Chancre (hooked up with the mob) and Lever (the academic Intuitionist).

Then a murder--of elevator 11 at the new Franny Briggs building--occurs. The elevator is at the morgue, and Watson was the last to inspect it. She then goes underground to figure out what this is all about. Her search leads her to search for Fulton's black box (the father of Intuitionism and his perfect elevator), and to find secrets in Fulton's past, an investigative journalist, the mob, and a variety of characters. She finds that Fulton's book Theoretical Elevators, vol II is an allegory, just as this novel is an allegory. (Or so the cover says--I am really not good with allegory, as it makes me very uncomfortable to assume intent, thus I was not an English major.)

In the end, Lila Mae Watson has a new purpose--"...to let the citizens know it is coming. The let them prepare themselves for the second elevation."

Really an incredible book. Featuring corporate espionage and politics under a shadow of race--all in a city worthy of China Miéville.
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