Sunday, October 10, 2010

Your "The Intuitionist" -- A 10/10/10 Post

I hate when a book fails to live up to your expectations. I think every active reader has experienced this letdown, and either decides to give up on the novel in toto, before any more disheartenment can occur, or trudge through it with the (often vain) hope that it will somehow be redeemed as the narrative is given time to more fully reveal itself. Sadly, overall, this is how I met Colson Whitehead's "The Intuitionist." It wasn't my cup of tea (tea drinker that I am). The novel didn't improve with further reading, either, regrettably.

Here's the deal. As "race" things go, I'm a pluralist. I'm pro all inclusion. Does that mean I become uncomfortable when discussions on race devolve into discussions of the problems presented by various races' presence in, say, America? Yes, it does make me uncomfortable, as it should make everyone feel but for some reason doesn't always do that, make everyone uncomfortable. People functioning thoughtlessly and with an eye only for their own selfish and self-centered lives also make me uncomfortable. I'll hear them out, and I won't necessarily argue my feelings with them (when I do, it's usually only delicately and in a way that's not likely to spark greater confrontation), especially when it's clear there's little to be gained from trying to dissuade someone of his or her hard-and-fast beliefs, much as you disagree. Point is, I've read enough authors (for one example of ways you might diversify your life experience) of all persuasions to know humans are equal, as those things go. Each race has its intelligent people and its less than intelligent people. Those arguing the supremacy of their own race over others or all others tend to fall in the latter camp, whether white or black or whoever. That is, it tends to be true, the less intelligent are more inclined to bigotry, though I don't mean to offend bigots of all races and creeds with that avowal. Some of you might just be incredibly egocentric, not necessarily stupid, for all I know.

So what was the point of stating all that I did in the preceding paragraph? Well, just that I SHOULD have liked "The Intuitionist." Or at least, I was very open to liking it (see Jonathan Franzen's analogous gripe with William Gaddis (although I disagree with Franzen's thesis, which I will touch on when I touch on William Gaddis)). It's also a novel that very specifically concerns race. The setting is an alternate universe in which race relations in the United States haven't changed much since the era of the Jim Crow South and the subsequent Civil Rights Movement (the assumption being: what would the world be like without that movement and the reforms it enacted?). Blacks are marginalized and only thought of, when they're thought of at all, in derogatory terms. It's an interesting premise, and I especially enjoyed the role elevators play in defining the characters. But ultimately my lasting feelings toward it could be described as follows, it was too darkly satirical to be taken as farce but too disjointed and grim to be taken as contributing something inventive and perceptibly applicable to the discussion of race in the late nineties (when it was published) and beyond.

The story follows Lila Mae Watson, the city's (which city was never specifically named but presumably it is a stand-in for New York) first ever black female elevator inspector. The city itself is corrupt and out of control but also feels austere, as its constant reference to elevators seems to have both the positive and negative aspect of providing clear and ceaseless vision of a concrete-laden landscape, a jagged skyline of high towers, nearly barren of organic life and certainly overarchingly dystopian. From the vantage we're afforded as readers, this world seems obsessed with debate over the two competing schools of elevator inspection, Empiricism and Intuitionism. (Lila Mae Watson herself subscribes to the latter school of thought.) And behind Intuitionism is a reclusive scholar named James Fulton whose passing coincides with Watson's attendance of the most prestigious elevator inspection academy in the country, whereat Fulton had prior to his death resided. Thus the two cross paths ever so briefly.

The rub of the story, meanwhile, is the failure of elevator 11 in the Fannie Briggs Memorial Building, a confirmed total free fall that occurs most inopportunely as The Mayor and the current Elevator Guild Chair Frank Chancre were among an entourage showing off the building to French diplomats. Watson was the last inspector to inspect the Fannie Briggs Building, putting a target squarely on her back. And so the story takes on a noir quality, mystery and dark alleys and the mob seemingly having a hand in the events that follow. Intuitionism seems to be under fire, as Chancre is an empiricist up for imminently approaching re-election. Furthermore, it's suspected by numerous factions that Fulton had completed another work, they refer to it as "Fulton's black box," which they believe will change how intuitionism is perceived, a "game changer" you might say.

Lila Mae Watson, as a character, never quite feels three-dimensional to me. I felt myself waiting throughout the story for some kind of apotheosis that simply does not come. It's not that she's largely the same person she was at the start of the novel by its end that bothers me; its that she never seems to be an individual of much flavor at all. Words I might describe her with, "independent," "guarded," deliberate," "intuitive," "lonely" and "smart." Never passionate, however, which is the one thing I think might have saved her character. I wanted her to care about her actions more visibly, but she seems more spectator than actor throughout the novel, going through the motions even when she reacted decisively in some fashion.

Its [spoiler alert] biggest revelations were somewhat confused, e.g. from the novel: "White people's reality is built on what things appear to be -- that's the business of Empiricism." Of course, white people were also intuitive, to be counted among those of the school of Intuitionism. But even these characters assume a villainous aspect as the story progresses. And you could argue turning all white people into the oppressive "the man" of blaxsploitation a la Shaft is perfectly legit and reasonable. But I never got the sense that that was Whitehead's intent, although neither did I get the sense that Whitehead was singling whites out as villains. No, instead it struck me as something in between, something incoherent, a hybrid of those two possibilities, and again, as I see it, poorly executed.

There's just very little clarity, as if the author himself wasn't sure of this story. What does Whitehead want from his novel? Anything? Nothing? I suppose in that sense it's interesting. The story leaves you intuiting that the world is breaking towards change, but little else leading up to this description impels you to feel that way. (Still more interesting, what might this change be in manifest? What's ideal for a society resting on so much unrest and misunderstanding? Certainly that question is applicable to our present day American circumstances, in which accusations of racism are invoked by all sides, no?)

I might also mention the character Natchez or the competing elevator manufacturers like Arbo, with a stake in Fulton's black box. But none of it moved me terribly much, and when the ending finally began to pull itself together few of the reveals were especially compelling, and were not terribly surprising.

Still, the book has its moments, and Whitehead is a fine writer. I imagine I might like his work, just did not here. Maybe somewhere and at sometime I will? Time will tell if intuition can't . . .

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