I've just finished rereading this novel, Colson Whitehead's 1999 debut, for the Weird Stories class. I liked it a lot when I first read it--Whitehead is one of my favorite contemporary writers, in fact--but this time I liked it more. It seems important, somehow. At the time it was published, it merely appeared to me like an inventive book in what I'd hoped would be a new era of literary invention. Now, though, it feels special. The intervening years have been disappointing in a lot of ways, and Whitehead's book increasingly seems like a highly improbably bullseye.
In case you aren't aware--the book is about Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman elevator inspector in an alternate-universe civil-rights-era New York that values elevator inspectors as much as, say, cops or firefighters. And in this universe, there are two schools of elevator inspection: the Empiricists, with their methodology of careful observation; and the Intuitionists, who are able to feel the elevator's pain. On the eve of an election--the Chief Inspector election--a prominent, brand-new elevator (just inspected by the previously infallible Lila Mae) goes into free-fall and crashes. This virtual impossibility stinks of sabotage, and Lila Mae is thrown into a mystery that involves politics, the mob, and the missing notebooks of James Fulton, the father of Intuition.
The book is a thriller of the DeLillian order, brainy and discursive, self-reflexive. (It's even printed in the DeLillo typeface.) But where it succeeds most spectacularly is as a new way of talking about race. Whitehead's protagonists are all reluctant to assume the mantle of racial identity (in his subsequent two novels, this burden actually renders then physically ill), and its attendant obligations; their concern is the invention of the self, and what the self means within the confines of the group. Through Lila Mae, Whitehead works through these contradictions, employing an elliptical narrative style that jumps halfway into each scene, then backtracks to the beginning to demonstrate how the present moment came to be. It's disorienting without being alienating, dark and funny, optimistic yet incredibly sad, and it offers a way forward from the doldrums of the post-civil-rights era. In fifty years, it will seem shocking that it was pre-Obama.
Also, the ending is great. Lila Mae discovers the particularity of Fulton's self-invention, and borrows it as a template for her own. All the book's mysteries are solved, but in a way that demonstrates the folly of clear answers. It's all very surprising, very deft, and very satisfying, without ever compromising its intellectual standards.
I feel as though each of Whitehead's books has been a little less good than the one before. Not a lot less good, just a little. Less...clear and whole, I guess. It's as though, with The Intuitionist, he stumbled upon a way to be great, and he is riding this wave of excellence and waiting for the next one to come take him away. I'm pretty confident one will arrive--he's a terrific writer. But this book is definitely going to last--it is getting better every year.