Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., March 24, 2000
The Intuitionistby Colson Whitehead
Anchor Books, 256 pp., $11.95 (paper)
This remarkable debut novel arrives in paperback following an avalanche of accolades upon its initial publication last year. On the surface it's the story of Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector, who, following a mysterious elevator accident, becomes the central figure in a raging feud between two schools of thought, the traditional Empiricists and the cutting-edge Intuitionists. But peeling back the layers reveals a book drenched in allegory that works on a multitude of different levels. It's a world of ambiguities in which appearances and loyalties are not always what they seem to be. Part of the success of this book is Whitehead's ability to give the story a riveting sense of place. Although time and setting are not specifically stated, The Metropolis (by implication, early-mid 1950s New York) is an impersonal, intimidating presence unto itself with a grimy, dark, moody foreboding. It's as if the revelation of "vertical transport" is the only way to raise one's soul above these earthly and man-made portents.