Colson Whitehead,
The Intuitionist
(Anchor Books, 1999)

Creating excellent fantasy and science fiction seems to me a tricky business. There are so many places one's imagination can go that it's difficult to rein it in and create a convincing other, whether it be an entire world or a set of speculative circumstances. I've come to feel the most affecting visions in fantasy and science fiction are those that are closest to what I know in the present world. If a writer merely tweaks my present (or my past or my near future) I'm more likely to form an immediate and powerful connection to that new place. The most intriguing of these "what if" scenarios must be, of course, well-written and well-plotted, but they must also feel close enough to my experiences to strike a chord of recognition. That's a difficult thing to capture, and even more difficult to successfully evoke.

I've often thought this is why precious few stellar science fiction or fantasy films have been made, despite numerous attempts. The pinnacle of all such films remains, in my mind, Ridley Scott's cyberpunk masterpiece, Blade Runner. Of course, Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is responsible for considering the existential dilemma of a slave race of genetically engineered supermen that is the key to the impact of the film. However, the conventions of film noir and Harrison Ford's familiar mug made that bleak landscape familiar even while showing us a jarringly pessimistic Los Angeles, civilization, and view on our own scientific arrogance.

Why am I bringing up a film in a book review? Well, for one main reason. I believe that the various formats of storytelling available to us -- the written word, the illustration, the moving image -- are fluid, and thus books often remind me of films and vice versa. Search though I might for connections to novels from the subject of this review, Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist, I keep returning to references to film, painting and architecture.

The world presented is in one distinct way completely unlike what we know from our own past. The "what if" here is this: what if the horizontal rush outward to the suburbs, propelled by car and rail, that characterized the middle of last century was preempted by the desire to go up, to expand vertically? One of the inventions that originally allowed this was, of course, the elevator. The egotistical competition of politicians and leaders of industry that led to many a great city's skyline seems to have continued unfettered, and the vast sprawl of the suburbs is distant and undesirable. The Elevator Guild has now become the most valued government institution, and with that distinction comes dubious politics and public scrutiny.

The Elevator Guild is, however, a house divided. The old school members, the Empiricists, support the proven methods of Elevator Inspection -- basically, getting down into the shaft and looking for problems. In recent years the newer generation of inspectors has been drawn to a radical departure -- Intuitionism. In this splinter discipline, the inspector needs only stand in the presence of the elevator, listening to its machinery and feeling its vibrations to detect its faults. This seemingly magical awareness of technology is too intangible for the everyday citizen, or for that matter many Guild Inspectors, to wrap their minds around. No one can explain why Intuitionists are also recorded as more accurate than their more traditional counterparts. On top of all that, it's an election year within the Guild, and with the mafia looming on one side and the city's politicians tinkering on the other, tensions between opposing parties are at an all time high.

At the heart of the story is Lila Mae Watson, the city's first black female Elevator Inspector. As if that position weren't pressure enough, she's also an Intuitionist. With an impeccable record and a cool, professional manner, she has managed to climb through this good-old-boys network and crack through that bit of glass ceiling. At the start of the story, she has just finished her first round on one of the most prestigious assignments in the city, the gleaming elevators of the newly constructed Fanny Briggs building.

Without warning, a day after her inspection, one of the elevators goes into complete free fall, a catastrophe not witnessed in decades. The Empiricists are quick to blame the witchery of Intuitionism and condemn Lila Mae, but she knows, with unflagging certainly, that No. 14 was in perfect order when she left it. So begins Lila Mae's investigation to clear her own name, her party's reputation, and to restore the Elevator Guild's glory.

As I read, I felt more like I was sinking into a memory rather than a fictional, alternate past. Every description brought up images from city planning and the soaring architecture of the skyscraper boom. The dialogue called up the ghosts of such films as The Big Sleep and the incomparable Sweet Smell of Success. The elevators, so key to the style and sense of the book, all appeared in my imagination as slick Art Deco instruments, perhaps a little tarnished, but efficient and safe. The enveloping atmosphere of the book lulls the reader completely into this altered city without a hint of the shift that has taken place.

The book is deceptively safe, however, in its evocation of our communal memory of a past which, as a culture, we have gleaned mainly from stories from our elders and the documents of old movies and books. The Gotham-esque city gathers us in with nostalgic details from our own progress-obsessed last century. The description of clothing reminds us of a time when cars all had higher roofs to accommodate everyone's hats, and the characters are the usual suspects, from mafia thugs to sleazy politicians. Fictional historical facts, especially those surrounding the invention and advancement of elevation, are blended in with real history with such authority that I had difficulty telling what might be true and what created. For example, the tale of Elisha Otis' first demonstration of the safety elevator is based in fact, while casual references to Lift magazine, purveyor of Elevator Guild news, are expertly deployed without fanfare in order to keep the illusion of familiarity in place. I could almost see such a glossy magazine cover sitting beside Life and Vanity Fair at the local newsstand. This comfort level, however, is a kind of veneer which at first makes everything familiar but then, as it is stripped away, reveals the darkness underneath the nostalgia.

Deftly and beautifully, the story spins into a subtle exploration of so much more than the predictable points of politics and technology. Reminiscent of post-modern theory, Intuitionsim and the debate over the soul and existence of elevators is illuminated as an intriguing argument that echoes the modern yearning for the streamlined sublime. The search for the "black box," or the perfect elevator that will remove all limits to upward expansion, almost echoes contemporary physicists search for a Grand Unified Theory of the universe. The intricate connection between man and his technology brings us back around to the emotional and existential questioning of Blade Runner's genetically engineered replicants -- and The Intuitionist asks equally piercing and unsettling questions about identity, race, and, through this warped mirror, our own less than honorable past.

Colson Whitehead has the rare ability to give human faces to the intellectual wondering, both in Lila Mae Watson and the elusive and conflicted father of Intuitionism, James Fulton. Exploring both the nature of genius and its traps, as well as the curiosity, respect, and above all, love a student feels for her mentor, Whitehead creates a rich emotional core for a story which could have been bogged down with technical and intellectual language.

The atmosphere feels stolen from an Edward Hopper painting, filled with indelible images and colors of solitude and urban living, called up by Whitehead's unpretentious yet artful prose. That kind of tough love for a city, despite all of the potential loneliness and brutality, imbues the entire novel with a cohesive and defiant aura. Lila Mae also makes a complicated heroine, cool and collected in the face of ever challenge but also, underneath that mask, losing her center as she delves deeper and deeper into the Guild's past and her own dilemma. An outsider in three ingrained ways -- woman, black, and Intuitionist -- her own journey ends up not only a search for the truth about the fall, but also of how she has chosen to live her life. At the beginning of the novel, she is tolerated as a socially ostracized but politically necessary member of the Guild. By the finish, all of those loyalties and definitions have shifted and managed to shatter her world, but from the wreckage she is strong and cunning enough to reach for a new and more powerful understanding of her situation.

The Intuitionist left me haunted by its vision of a world that so easily could have been our own. As in all great fantasy, it is just different enough to decisively and critically reflect our own society back at us and charges us to see ourselves in that difference. It is also a magnificently told, richly detailed thriller, easily read and cherished.

[ by Robin Brenner ]

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