Sunday, April 11, 2010

Book Review: The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead’s novel The Intuitionist falls prey to a common error: the unjustified twist. The unjustified twist comes in two varieties: the twist that makes no sense whatsoever and the one that only makes some sense. The latter variety is like getting lost: each move the book makes makes sense in reference to its most recent move, but makes no sense whatsoever when compared to the moves at the beginning of the book—it contradicts information delivered at the beginning. Furthermore, the twist falls prey to the “The Chosen One” trap, always a deadly cliché, of making your protagonist so special that he or she is the only one (the chosen one) to resolve the problem posed by your plot. I feel like I’ve heard the line “He’s the Chosen One” (or variants) delivered fifty times in trailers over the past ten years (very scientific count).

So the book is something of a triumph of theme over plot. Most critics and teachers, I bet, like this so the book has been favorably reviewed…I guess if I can only choose one I’ll be dissatisfied either way; at any rate, plot has too long been disrespected by reviewers and teachers and what-have-you. Since theme is the ideas delivered by the book, and ideas are concepts about people and their actions, you can’t really have these concepts without action, hopefully compelling action. Otherwise you get a navel-gazing novel.

The Intuitionist is not a navel-gazing novel, as it’s much better. The book succeeds by being strange and familiar at the same time. Set in an unnamed metropolis in an unnamed era—it seems to be New York, and an argument could be made for the 20s, 30s, 40s, or even later—it concerns a contest between two rival factions of elevator inspectors. Suspension of disbelief, like that of the elevators, is immediately and effectively done: yes, you do end up believing that the center of the world is elevators and it’s the most important thing in the world, a natural for smart young men and women to be drawn to.

The conceit of the book is that the smart young men and women of the world are drawn to this particular city’s Department of Elevator Inspection because this particular metropolis is where all the tall buildings get built, necessitating all those elevators, which apparently always need to be inspected. It being a big city, of course, there’s intrigue: the department is electing its head, and the two candidates are split between the Empiricist faction, who inspect an elevator by all the means you’d guess, and the Intuitionist faction, who inspect an elevator by…well, their intuition. Meditation, I guess, is another word you’d use to describe it. This is one of the areas that makes more sense in the book than it could seem by someone describing it.

As the book opens, one Intuitionist—a black woman named Lila Mae Watson who’s the second black person and the first black woman in the Department—is about to be framed. She has inspected a new elevator, that, a week after, has broken and gone into freefall, fortunately with no one in it. Coming at such a sensitive time in the election, this has political repercussions, setting off the whole web of intrigue deal.

That’s the plot. Here’s the theme: it’s very interesting when it comes to race. Lila Mae, being a trailblazer, must deal with the assumptions of race and the assumptions of her newfangled discipline. She’s guarded and more than a little bit cold to her colleagues, a just-the-job type. The other black worker in the Department, a man named Pompey, is widely assumed to be an Uncle Tom and a lickspittle, an assumption that turns out to be more complicated. Racism is not all of the blatantly Crash variety, though there is a minstrel show in the middle of the book…At any rate, that part of the novel deals quite well with the dilemma many black people deal with nowadays: I know my achievements are legitimate—and yet others suspect otherwise. In fact, those others suspect race has wormed its way in to deprive them of their privileges continuously…And the fact that the assumption has been made before fact can get in the way. It becomes a web it’s hard to escape from; the only thing left is to do your job and hope for the best. So you work hard and shut yourself off from the rest. Lila Mae Watson is therefore a loner in the best tradition of noir heroes, whose best tools end up being her own ethics and intuition.

Is this appealing to you? Most of it was for me, but I admit that many of other people could break in other directions. Whitehead’s ideas end up being rather stronger than the vehicle they ride on, whether we’re talking about plot or prose. His prose is often a bit overwritten and sometimes strains to use nonobvious language to describe obvious situations. But, heck, it’s a short book anyway, so even if you dislike it, it’ll be over quickly.

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