Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

The copyright on this book is 1999 and I only really grabbed it at the library because his current novel, the Underground Railroad, is getting all the love right now and I decided to delve into the world of Whitehead after hearing an interview with him on Fresh Air and this was the only available Whitehead novel on the shelf.  So The Institutionist is neither new nor is what I'm about to write anything other people have written about in the last fifteen years, but the facts are that, based on the waiting list for Underground Railroad at my library, it maybe be another fifteen years before I get to read that book.

On the surface, this is about elevator inspectors in an unspecified city in an unnamed world in an ambiguous time period.  There are two distinct approaches to elevator inspecting - Empiricists who use tools, rules, and close measurement  and Intuitionsists who use instinct, touch, and some metaphysical trance-like state.   On the surface, it's a mystery about an elevator mishap.

But it appears to be an allegorical tale about race and societal engineering.  At least, I think it is. I'm the person who doesn't actually understand what the allegory is in Gulliver's Travels most of the time, so maybe I'm wrong.  There's a lot to unpack in this novel.  Elevators seems to be a stand-in for a more generic "technology" that in 1999 would have just been on the upswing (I had only had email for two years at that point) and how changes in technology could help the world in untold ways or it could be used for nefarious purposes, too. I also think it was sort of prescient in terms of how the development of the technology could be dangerous and the outcomes could be an environmental disaster.

Okay.   Fine. I think that's sort of interesting, in a vague sort of way.

But what is Whitehead trying to say about race here? I think this part definitely went over my head (ha ha! verticality is a joke!).  Are the elevators a symbol of the attempts at POC to "rise above"?  The main character is a black woman, the first in the Department, and is she supposed to represent the change or lack of change in race relations - you can change the appearance, but underneath it's the same perspective?  Do the elevators represent a race to the economic top?  A race in which blacks are handicapped?  WHAT IS GOING ON, WHITEHEAD?

I found it incredibly frustrating, but I also know I'm going to be thinking about this for a long time, so maybe he has done his job. In the meantime, I'll go ahead and request Underground Railroad from the library. I'll let you know how it goes in 2030.

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