I made the decision to start reading more scifi/fantasy books by people of color (i.e. black people) about a week before I learned anything about RaceFail. In February’s issue of Ebony Magazine, they listed some books to read. I usually skip over it their selections, since they usually have romance and/or memories–stuff I’m not interested in, but then I read a blurb about "The Intuitionist", a story about the first black female Elevator Inspector caught in a political war in her department. Elevator Inspector? Now that intrigued me.
Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist. She is part of a new breed of Inspectors who can go into any elevator and inspect it just by intuition. This pits them against the Empiricists, who inspect elevators the hands-on way, and who scoff at the Intuitionists, calling their methods voodoo, touchy feely.
Then an elevator falls and crashes, an elevator Lila Mae inspected and cleared. Lila Mae, who is never wrong, finds herself caught between the two factions’. It’s election time to vote in a new chair, and the two candidates, one Empiricist, one Intuitionist, push and pull Lila Mae to concede to their wishes. There is also much about the founder of Intuitionism, James Fulton, who hidden blueprints to the perfect elevator, and it is up for Lila Mae to find them so she can clear her name.
There’s a lot packed in this relatively short book. Whitehead (I love this guy’s last name–he’s black–did he take it into account when he decided to become a writer?) puts the setting of the book in an alternate, but close mirror of the 1930s, where mobs easily kidnapped journalists and break their fingers so they won’t print certain stories. The story has a vague steampunk feel to it with all the focus on how elevators work and the different factions of the Inspectors. It treads in the shadow of speculative fiction, though as I got towards the end, I became hard-pressed to find it.
Told from Lila Mae’s point of view, the whole subject of race is also pulled into it. We see Lila Mae breaking barriers by becoming the first colored female Inspector, but her path to get there is hard–at the school where she learns about Elevators, the only place for her to live on campus is in a janitor’s closet in an abandoned gym. And the barriers are still very much present–there is a dramatic scene where Lila Mae goes to the Elevator Follies disguised as a waitress, and she sees two of her white coworkers in blackface doing a routine. She then sees the only other colored person, who had been invited to the Follies, cracking up alongside the others. She returns to the kitchen, who are all black women, and ponder how they remain silent, doing their chores knowing full well what was happening in the other room.
When the story doesn’t linger on the intricacies of elevator philosophy, it puts us squarely in Lila Mae’s conformed-to-standard shoes. This is not a woman who stands out. What defines her is her uniformity. Her apartment is sparse, her lifestyle built on routine, until her world is shaken. We then see her life, through present time and flashback, as she begins to change from someone who follows directions, to someone who truly follows her intuition.
Whitehead’s writing is circuitous. Weaving between Lila Mae’s predicament to her past, dipping into Fulton’s long winded theories about the perfect "black box", an elevator that would transcend itself, jumping to other characters like the polite but apathetic thugs Jim and John–Whitehead’s style of writing takes a little getting used to. At times, the information on elevators get a bit much–having Lila Mae go through an oral exam was torture for me, and probably her as well. But Whitehead also surprises by showing us a slices of the 30s and 40s you wouldn’t normally see. For instance, when Lila Mae get chased by Jim and John, she escapes by ducking into a Dime-a-Dance in progress. I never knew such things existed back then. But the way he uses the venue is wonderful and touching.
The ending, for me, is ambiguous as we learn Fulton’s history and the meaning behind his invention. It feels like I need to read it over again, just to read between the lines of the whole story. But it would be something I’d would to read again, maybe even buy and keep on my bookshelf a while. Not bad for a debut book. Three 1/2 elevator cabs out of five. And watch that first step–it’s a doozy.