My appetite for mystery is what led me to The Intuitionist. Hungry for another mystery, I gobbled up Flavorwire’s list of 50 Essential Mystery Novels That Everyone Should Read. Colson Whitehead’s neo-noir tale sounded so deliciously different, the book soon skyrocketed to the top of my to-read list despite the fact that no one else I knew had ever heard of it.
I imagined it to be a high-minded unraveling of a complicated world that would still keep me rapt in the story, eager to turn each page.
My expectations were wildly off base.
The Intuitionist is more allegory than mystery, more Ralph Ellison than Agatha Christie.
The story takes place in a sort of steampunk, pre-civil rights New York (although it’s never named). There, elevators are not only regulated by the government, but are well-recognized symbols of social mobility—after all, the elevators make the tall, glittering cities of the future possible. Lila Mae Watson is the city’s first black female inspector. She’s also an Intuitionist, a school of inspection looked down upon by the Empiricist majority for the way it relies on psychic sensations rather than tools for its inspections. When one of the elevators Lila’s given her seal of approval suddenly plummets, she becomes determined to figure out who set her up and why.
If this little synopsis has your head spinning, don’t worry—you’re not alone. There’s a lot going on in the world that author Colson Whitehead has built, but it’s really not difficult to fall into.
Slick city streets, dark underbelly politics, and nefarious thugs all have their roles to play while Whitehead toys with concepts of racial identity. He uses the characters’ discussion of “verticality” to force the reader into thinking about the social strata and how racism has shaped it. He then wraps this blatant allegory of the black experience in a dark, noir style that’s more Raymond Chandler than Toni Morrison.
Unfortunately for me, I would generally rather watch noir than read it. There’s an iciness to the language, something almost mechanical, which leaves me feeling detached. Here, it absolutely works to match our aloof protagonist, but I felt like I was being kept at arm’s length in a way that worked against what Whitehead was trying to achieve.
I wanted to feel like I was with Lila every step of they way, not just watching her from afar as in passages like this:
“Her place was as she left it: raped. She pulled her suitcase from under the bed and packed again, this time for a much longer stay. . . . She lingered in the doorway. She thought she had forgotten something. Hadn’t. She did not possess any lucky rabbit’s feet or childhood dolls to ward off the monsters of the adult world. Just clothes.”
It’s hard for me to explain why I don’t connect with this passage. It should be tense, I should feel Lila’s anxiety or her fear, but I just don’t. The text just couldn’t take me there.
Yet I can’t fully blame Whitehead for this failure. My expectations were sky high for this book, I went in with the wrong mindset, and I was ill prepared for the in-your-face nature of its themes.
“White people’s reality is built on that things appear to be—that’s the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light.”
Had I come into the book more prepared, my experience might have been slightly different. I needed an emotional connection to the story, and an allegory was not the place for me to look. As it stands, I still appreciate everything The Intuitionist is trying to accomplish, but when I couldn’t care about it, I realized I didn’t care for it.