The Intuitionist

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.

The Terror

The Terror by Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’s The Terror introduces the reader to a nightmare—a deadly combination of horror, fiction, and (most unsettlingly) reality. In 1845, 148 men led by Captain Sir John Franklin departed England on two ships, the Terror and the Erebus, in search of the Northwest Passage.

The expedition was a complete failure.

Navigating treacherous ice floes in the far north, dealing with months of endless winter and endless night, and limited supplies all seem to spell a recipe for disaster on their own. But in The Terror, Simmons wonders, what if there was something even worse than that?

What if there was something out there in the infinite darkness?

Meticulously researched, The Terror brings both the historical reality of the expedition and the terrifying fiction to life. Chapters alternate between the perspectives of major (and minor) players—including Captain Sir John Franklin himself—and fluctuate back and forth through time. The first chapter, narrated by Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, captain of the Terror, opens by pinpointing their location on their voyage and subsequently, our location in the story:

Lat. 70°-05’ N., Long. 98°-23’ W.
October, 1847

Beginning with these unassailable facts, Simmons brings a sense of authenticity to the novel. He even provides maps tracing the ships’ unfortunate route in the front matter so we can follow along on the journey, even peek ahead if we so choose. But in this very same chapter, Simmons yanks the rug from under us when he has Captain Crozier inspect some damage to the ship’s reinforced hull:

Something, Francis Crozier suspects, has dug down through these tons of snow and tunneled through the iron-hard slabs of ice to get at the hull of the ship. . . . And now it’s banging and clawing to get in.

Crozier knows that there’s only one thing on earth with that much power, deadly persistence, and malevolent intelligence. The monster on the ice is trying to get at them from below.

Clearly, this is not going to be a simple case of man vs. the elements.

I think what surprised me most was getting an introduction to this seemingly supernatural element so early on in the story. Numerous times Simmons would build suspense throughout a chapter until my heart was racing and my hand rose to my mouth in shock only for me to realize there were still hundreds of pages left—we weren’t even close to the climax.

I wondered how on earth he could keep this momentum going for 700+ pages. Where could the story be going? But I was never disappointed. Through an expertly woven combination of conflicts (man v. nature, man v. man, man v. monster), I was never bored. I was shocked that the book just didn’t drag. It wasn’t exactly a nonstop thrill ride, but it ebbed and flowed, pulling the reader ever closer to the inevitable conclusion—whatever that seemed to be at the time.

But The Terror wasn’t without its flaws, either. The book is a white man’s world with little room for anyone else. I’ll be the first to admit that this clearly seems due to Simmons’s desire for historical accuracy and to keep all perspectives among those aboard the ships. Still, the women and people of color that are depicted don’t get the fairest shake.

An old flame of Crozier’s, Sophia Cracroft, isn’t condemned for her role in Crozier’s past, but she certainly isn’t sympathetic or fully fleshed out, either. She plays but a small part, though, as she can only appear in the story through Crozier’s memories, and who knows how much of what he remembers can be trusted.

Lady Silence, however, features a bit more prominently and represents the only real major female presence as well as the only non-white character. She’s Inuit, and though Simmons has clearly done his research on their early 20th-century culture, it’s not quite enough to save her either from tokenism or mystical stereotyping. Chapters from Silence’s perspective really could have helped here, even if they were rare. I’m not sure I’d call her portrayal offensive, but I’m sad to admit I did ultimately find it disappointing. Simmons is clearly a talented writer—it’s just a shame he didn’t put any of those skills to use for this character.

But neither of these issues detract from the overall work. The Terror is a solid piece of historical fiction as well as horror. It is perfectly suited to short wintery days and long icy nights. I went in to the book knowing little of the real Franklin Expedition so history buffs may have a slightly different experience, but to them I say, suspend your disbelief. Just let yourself fall into the nightmare Simmons weaves. I think it might be my favorite horror novel I’ve ever read. And I think my favorite part about it is that when you boil it down, it’s less about the horrors outside your door and more about the horrors within.