It took me a fairly long time to read this book; I started it in the last few weeks of spring term, but I put it down for many others in between. It is in many ways—at least to me—a tremendously frustrating book—frustrating in ways that I find difficult to enumerate or articulate.
The plot, however, is not one of the book's frustrations. It is inventive in ways that go well beyond the superficial, although I feel the reviews (or at least the blurbs on the cover) go far too far when they compare Whitehead's imaginative powers to Pynchon; Whitehead possesses a first-rate imagination, but it is primarily conceptual, and not very detail-oriented. Pynchon, at his best, is both. There is not, unfortunately, any real thickness in Whitehead's elevator-obsessed world, but this is probably all for the best; a great deal of inventive detail would probably choke the high-stepping ambition of Whitehead's concepts and architecture.
That architecture holds up a curious world: elevator inspection has become one of the most important and prestigious municipal functions, and elevator inspectors have copped some of the attitudes and behaviors of police officers. In this context, the story is, at heart, a classic one: Lila Mae Watson, one of the best inspectors, is set up to take the fall (no pun intended) for a massive, catastrophic elevator crash. The fact that she is black and a woman, that Lila Mae is part of a heterodox school of elevator inspection known as Intuitionism, and that a major election to determine the future of the elevator inspector guild (including internal race relations and the place of Intuitionism in guild policy) is just on the horizon—all that complicates things marvelously. Traditional good-cop-on-the-run stuff happens (cf. Witness, only with fewer Amish), secrets are revealed, a hunt for a bigger secret commences, etc. The real interest comes in Whitehead's creation of Intuitionism, a method of elevator inspection wherein the inspector tries to sense any problems (current or future) with the elevator's parts and pieces. Surprisingly and inexplicably, this method is even more successful than Empiricism, a method the details of which you can probably figure out. Whitehead's decision to leave the details of Intuitionism vague and enigmatic is both frustrating and a relief—one is glad to have a little imaginative room, but one also has the sour feeling that Whitehead just didn't have enough ideas to produce more than the initial sketch and a few mystical non-sequiturs that are supposedly part of Intuitionism lore/doctrine, or that at any rate he didn't feel whatever ideas he did have were good enough or worked in his allegorical scheme (more on that below).
But the seeming hollowness of the Intuitionism enigma is only one frustration. Primarily, I think, I am put off by what I would call an alien restraint in the writing, a sense that Whitehead never says what he actually wishes to say. This feeling of relentless obliqueness is not completely attributable, I think, to the fact that Whitehead's message, which is rather disjointed, as far as I can tell, and betrayed by the ending, is manacled to allegory—though manacled, the allegory flies extremely well—nor is it possible to chalk this restraint up to a case of borrowed words or any fear of being too provocative or of coming off as too bitter or resentful—Whitehead seems to be happy as a clam in the style he has chosen, and he never seems to resent his resentment, so to speak. Finally, I would not say that The Intuitionist's curious problems of awkward restraint are in any way a function (or a result) of Whitehead's careening ambition. It does not appear to me that Whitehead is trying to rein in or aesthetically contain the scope and exuberance of his ideas. Although I find Whitehead's message a bit disjointed, his ambition is surprisingly coherent, as is the allegory he has created. Furthermore, I do not sense any element of frustration on Whitehead's part with regards to his consummation of the allegorical union of plot and message. Although the novel rapidly accelerates in its final fifty pages, it does not emit any whiff of artistic haste or compositional compromise in its resolution.
To put it pointedly, the novel appears distorted by an obscure presence. Its wit is neither savage nor mordant, but it is far from playful. Its realism, such as it is, is extraordinarily arbitrary, though not in the directed sense of magical realism, where verisimilitude is abridged for solid aesthetic reasons, or for understandable caprices, at any rate. In The Intuitionist, details flood at inopportune moments, and dry up in apposite ones. Characters notice environmental details which would escape someone not being narrated by Colson Whitehead, and although I usually don't mind this type of authorial over-determination, Whitehead does it in a certain way that makes his characters not only less believable, but less likeable. His manipulation of Lila Mae in this way is particularly damaging—her notation of the make, model, and color of elevator buttons even when she is being pursued by a menacing white-collar thug seems to dehumanize her rather than to enrich her well-established professionalism and precision.
I've heard good things about Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, which came out last year, but I'm not sure if it isn't those same good things the critics found in The Intuitionist. Which is not to say that I would not read another of Whitehead's novels; I would have no trouble granting him the status of an "important novelist" (if that title may be mine to grant). Quite clearly, the novel provoked a quite serious and deep response from me, and while I have serious aesthetic qualms with some of Whitehead's choices, there are few novelists who can gather his kind of allegorical power.