Illustration by Jason FarrisCall it the postmodern detective novel -- a genre that's been floating about for the last few decades in which the narrative is spurred by the search not for some conventionally valuable missing object, a golden statuette or purloined letter, but for something far more mysterious and grand. For Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, the grandfathers of the form, that something has been the significance of a single initial found in the pages of an aging journal, or the meaning of a series of zeros and ones transmitted, apparently, from deepest space. The driving question is not just what ultimate answers these ciphers might hold, but whether they, and the holy secrets they shroud, exist at all.
In The Intuitionist, former Village Voice TV columnist Colson Whitehead's ambitious first novel chronicling the (forgive me) ups and downs of the "international short-range vertical transport industry," the missing objects are the blueprints for a perfect elevator, as much a spiritual totem as the harbinger of a new urban era. Set in an unnamed New York in an indeterminate year -- the mythic modernist city, all strength, stink, sin and skyscrapers -- the book follows Lila Mae Watson, the country's first black female elevator inspector, as she navigates the battles between Intuitionism and Empiricism, the rival ideologies that cleave the Department of Elevator Inspectors. While Empiricists look for visible signs of wear -- frayed cables, worn gears -- the Intuitionists (whose ranks include Lila Mae) mystically commune with the elevator, intuiting its state of repair. When an elevator on her watch mysteriously crashes, Lila Mae's attempts to clear her name draw her into the ferocious intrigues surrounding the hunt for the ideal funicular.
For all its surreal humor, The Intuitionist is no mere spoof. It was, after all, the invention of the safety elevator that made the skyscraper possible, and with it the metropolis as we know it. To the extent that cities ("citadels pushed from the planet's guts like volcanoes and mountains to take the sky") are still our most potent symbols of modernity, the elevator, for Whitehead, is at the root of it all. And if he can turn the lift into an emblem of modernist alienation -- "the gloom of the shaft . . . does not merely echo the gloom inside every living creature, but duplicates it perfectly" -- the perfect elevator can only mean a postmodern dream of ascent: dissolution of and escape from the self. "The shining city" it will give rise to, he predicts, "will possess untold arms and a thousand eyes, mutability itself, constructed of yet unconjured plastics. It will float, fly, fall, have no need of steel armature, have a liquid spine, no spine at all." Lila Mae's search for the black box, then, and the running contest between Intuitionists and Empiricists, like Herbert Stencil's quest for V., shapes up as a struggle for possession of the postmodern soul.
But the paranoia that is a staple -- if not the whole cloth -- of this Pynchonian genre is in The Intuitionist more solidly grounded than in V. or its many offspring. Lila Mae Watson is not up against just any imagined cabal, but the flesh-and-blood conspiracy of white racism. Her token status in the department, and the attempts of all parties involved to use her as a pawn, constantly remind Lila Mae what her father taught her: "White folks can turn on you at any moment." Her estrangement is therefore not merely abstract: It rests on the terrible understanding that, as she is told midway through the novel, "No one cares about a nigger."
But Lila Mae's alienation gives her room to work out a critique of Empiricism -- and of "modernity's relentless death march" -- from the outside, to find the subtle machinations of race-based ideology in what passes for "the steering light of reason." All of which leads her to the conclusion, "There is a power beyond rationality. That the devil still walks the earth and architecture is no substitute for prayer, for cracked knees and desperate barter with the gods."
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For all its intelligence, The Intuitionist is at times forgivably marred by a first novelist's overenthusiasm -- Whitehead's wit occasionally overreaches; his cleverness takes a few regrettable turns toward cuteness. Less forgivably, entire chapters focusing on the sinister side of the elevator biz fail to transcend the noir clichés from which they too self-consciously crib. A goodly portion of Whitehead's characters are one-dimensional, which is fine, but the one dimension they display is rarely unique or interesting, which is not. And far too much of the dialogue clunks leadenly about the page.
But at its best, his prose is excellent -- simple and strong. He has succeeded at bringing new intellectual life to a genre that, despite its youth, has already begun to grow stale. In a market overflowing with the literary equivalent of sitcoms and soaps, The Intuitionist's flaws are easily overlooked: Whitehead had the imagination and daring to undertake a novel of ideas, and for the most part, he has pulled it off.
THE INTUITIONIST By COLSON WHITEHEAD Anchor 272 pages $20 hardcover