“What does the perfect elevator look like, the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks? We don't know because we can't see inside it, it's something we cannot imagine, like the shape of angels' teeth. It's a black box.” ― Colson Whitehead, The Intuitionist
This was my introduction to Colson Whitehead and he made a favorable first impression. The story is set in the middle of the twentieth century in a large metropolis, reminiscent of New York City, full of skyscrapers and other buildings requiring vertical transportation in the form of elevators. The time, while never identified explicitly, is one when black people are called "colored" and integration is a current topic. The protagonist is an African American elevator inspector named Lila Mae Watson. Watson is already marginalized by her race and sex, and her adherence to the Intuitionist method of elevator inspecting causes her to be further ostracized by her fellow inspectors, who are Empiricists. Intuitionists like Lila Mae assess an elevator’s “health” by listening to it and feeling its vibrations. Once in contact with the elevator, an Intuitionist just knows whether or not it is “healthy.” The competing school, the "Empiricists," insists upon traditional instrument-based verification of the condition of the elevator by getting into their shafts and checking the mechanisms to see if they meet specifications. Watson is the second black inspector and the first black female inspector in the city.
Lila Mae is very dedicated to her work and has an outstanding inspection record that earns her the prestigious assignment of inspecting the elevators in the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building. Then, disaster strikes. Elevator number eleven of the Fanny Briggs Memorial Building crashes in a free fall shortly after her inspection. It is an election year in the Elevator Guild, and the Intuitionists and the Empiricists have both put forth candidates for the position of guild chair. Consequently, Lila Mae is convinced that the Empiricist candidate, Frank Chancre, who has known connections with powerful underworld figure Johnny Shush, has had the elevator sabotaged. Discrediting her, an Intuitionist, will cause the Intuitionist candidate, Orville Lever, to lose favor.
The failure of the elevator inspected by Lila Mae also leads to a search for the roots of intuitionism. The result is a metaphysical meditation on the possibility of a perfect elevator. For those, like this reader, who are interested in history, science, and ideas this is a great read and was an auspicious start for the author.