02 February 2009

The Intuitionist

I have been trying to decide whether I have read an odder good novel. That is, I have read plenty of novels that were odd, but not worth a damn. This novel is both odd and really quite splendid. Author Colson Whitehead conjures an alternate universe in which elevator inspectors and engineers matter enormously. It is also an alternate universe in which the civil rights movement never happened; blacks are largely excluded from society's mainstream.

Whitehead writes with so much grace that you absolutely believe in his universe, and so much authority that you don't question why or how the universe got that way.

His heroine, the city's first black female elevator inspector, is an Intuitionist (there are two schools of inspection: empiricism and intuitionism); although Intuitionist methods are poorly understood and mistrusted by many, she has the highest accuracy rate in the department. The novel turns, however, on an incident that seems to point to her first failure; she sets herself to solving the mystery of how she could have been mistaken. In the process, she bumps up against political intrigues between Empiricists and Intuitionists who are battling for control of the elevator inspection guild, competing elevator manufacturing companies, and the mysterious background of the founder of Intuitionism.

The book succeeds in making you feel there is something profound about elevators, which is quite an accomplishment; from a philosophical point of view, Whitehead is less convincing: he challenges the practice of drawing conclusions from visible (or surface) evidence in favor of a mystical intuition. Since such talents don't reliably exist outside the fictive world, we can't really buy the notion that empiricism is not just wrong but racist; that is, we can buy it in a limited way (within the world of the novel)--we just can't take it with us.

Quite an extraordinary book, and beautifully done.

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