Year of Mysteries, Part 7: The Intuitionist


This was a somewhat enjoyable, quick read, but I had a lot of problems with it.

The Intuitionist takes place in a strange alternate world. It’s presumably alternate history, because much of the politics has to do with integration and Lila being the first female, black elevator inspector.

But it’s not quite our world, because there’s a huge bureaucracy of elevator inspectors, including a training institute (Institute for Vertical Transport), professional society, and even textbooks on philosophical schools of thought on proper inspection techniques.

The setup of the novel is that Lila Mae Watson is an “Intuitionist” inspector with an impeccable record. She inspects elevators by riding them and “intuiting” any problems. This is opposed to the school called the “Empiricists,” which inspect the old fashioned way: getting into the innards with their hands and eyes.

One of Watson’s elevators goes down, and she suspects it was sabotaged to make it look like the Intuitionists are untrustworthy. There’s also other political motivation going on with it being an election year.

So far, so good. This is quite a great premise setting up a way to discuss serious issues surrounding theory of mind, epistemology, etc.

What were my problems with it?

Well, there’s this idea in art that if you treat something as serious, no matter how unbelievable and silly it is, you can get it to come across as believable. But this takes really committing to the idea.

Whitehead commits.

This world is full of tons of details from what such a society would look like, yet I just never really bought the concept. I think part of the problem was that it tried to do too much, especially with the race aspect, which I haven’t even brought up yet.

I think the book would work better if she was set up because she was black or if she was set up because she was an Intuitionist. Trying to have it both ways created a lot of unnecessary awkwardness, and it softened the force of truly committing to one theme. By splitting the difference, neither came across as particularly compelling.

I’ll try to explain this a bit more.

The novel works on a speculative fiction level without bringing race into it at all. The Empiricists want to get rid of the Intuitionists. They are looked down upon both within the world of inspectors and in the world at large.

It makes sense that someone would set up the main character to have one of her elevators fall. Then the world can blame her for not “properly” examining the elevator, and the whole Intuitionist school of thought takes a hit for more “reliable” methods (though, statistically intuitionists do better, a clever twist Whitehead put into the world).

It would work brilliantly as both a mystery plot and as a work of speculative fiction in which Intuitionists play the role of a scapegoated, marginalized population.

In fact, when race gets brought up, it’s almost like an afterthought and thrown in because that’s Whitehead’s “thing” rather than working naturally in the novel. The book will be in the middle of something else, and then it kind of pops up randomly: oh, yeah, and you’re black! So it’s probably that, too!

So, as astute readers, we’ve noticed this is what Whitehead wants to do, and we’re a little annoyed that characters keep implying this conflation of race and Intuitionists. But then Whitehead commits the ultimate writing sin, and he decides he doesn’t trust readers to figure this out (though it’s sooo obvious).

A character says:

“So I don’t know what the official story is, but you get the gist from his speech. He’s making it into a political thing because you’re an Intuitionist. And colored, but he’s being clever about it.”

No. Just no.

I mean, is it still an allegory if the writer flat out tells us what the pieces mean?

If, as a writer, you’re ever tempted to talk directly to a reader like this through a character because you’re afraid they haven’t caught on, then you’ve done something wrong. If you’re that worried, make it clearer through subtext some other way. Or, as I’ve proposed, maybe just clarify what the themes and metaphors are instead of trying to conflate a bunch of stuff.

After such on-the-nose dialogue, I kept expecting our main character to blurt out at some point: I chose the elevator profession because it raises and lowers people to different social strata with the rich bankers having parties on the roof and the lowly doorman at the bottom. The elevator is the great equalizer. Anyone can move to any position in an instant as long as good inspectors keep them working.

Yikes. I wish I could say such a moment never came, but it did. It was a much pithier and eloquent formulation:

…horizontal thinking in a vertical world is the race’s curse.

As I said, it definitely kept my attention with a unique premise and fully fleshed out speculative world, but it could have used a lot more focus and subtlety. Not to be mean, but it reads like a first novel, and that’s what it is. The flashes of the more confident Whitehead we see in his later The Underground Railroad are in here, and they are brilliant when they happen.

I’ve seen this book compared to The Crying of Lot 49 and Invisible Man. Both are apt comparisons, but I’d rather read the former for political conspiracy theory paranoia and the latter for its excellent racial commentary than something that tries to do both at the same time, just worse.

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