Up, Up, and Away

Colson Whitehead's first novel rises on the merits of its central image-- the elevator

For a while it appeared that the best American minds of my generation were all choosing to be rock critics. Intellectuals with Harvard, Berkeley, and Stanford B.A.s, M.A.s, and even Ph.D.s lined up for the chance to critique PJ Harvey and Wu-Tang Clan in Spin, eager to turn their expensive educations loose on something more hot-blooded--and (fingers crossed) significant--than Wittgenstein. But the desire to find evidence of cultural insurrection in mass-produced entertainment often led these impassioned seekers to give more (or less) credit than was due; reviews read like fictions, "inspired by" the ostensible subject. Nothing wrong or unusual about that, of course, but for the unnerving sight of so much creative ambition brought to bear on so little.

Colson Whitehead, schooled at Harvard, was one such obfuscating pop scholar. The Intuitionist, his first novel, marks his passage away from the music and TV departments of the Village Voice et al. And that's the least it does. The Intuitionist (Anchor Books) comes adventurously worded, movingly characterized, agreeably paced, blah blah blah, whatever. What matters, what inspires, about Whitehead's book, is its indelible central image, which keeps erupting with meanings, between the covers and beyond. At last, I want to cry: One of us has discovered--has written!--a melody that encourages and accommodates relentless interpretation, with ample mystery left over. And what is that discovery, that metaphor? An elevator.

Whitehead's story follows Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in a city that is and isn't our New York, at a time that could be a distillation of the mid- to late-20th century. Mini-pizza canapés coexist with dime-a-dance parlors. The "colored" are optimistically moving north. Native Southerner Lila Mae pays $15.45 a week for her two-room apartment and wears pants to work.

The Department of Elevator Inspectors is wracked with a philosophical division between the old-school Empiricists, who need to examine the elevator's actual cables and wheels, and the Intuitionists, who inspect by "becoming" the elevator, entering the elevator mind. And the entire elevator world is abuzz with the rumor of a mind-boggling new lift--the black box--which will help invent floating cities.

Lila Mae counts herself among the Intuitionists, although they don't necessarily count her; she's universally ignored. Then an elevator she had inspected free-falls and crashes. Within hours, each faction is trying to spin the incident to its advantage. Lila Mae, her 100 percent accuracy rate spoiled, wants only to find the party responsible for what can't be an accident: She cleared that elevator, and she's never wrong. She goes AWOL and undercover in a piercingly funny scene at a drunken Department function, and learns again to trust no one, including Lila Mae. Her ensuing search leads her to a dead white man, James Fulton--the creator of Intuitionism and the black box--and his pack of lies.

Fulton's secrets concern race and motivation, and they shake Lila Mae, who has never questioned the tenets of her chosen discipline. It's at this point that Whitehead's metaphors begin to expand rapidly: The Empiricists and Intuitionists strip off their academic trappings (William Bennett versus the multicultis) to reveal racial undertones (white fascination with surface; black pride in "feel"), which again peel away to describe more general principles of perception (objectivity or relativity). And above all the squabbles is backroom capitalism--here the elevator manufacturer--which pits foe against friend in order to mask its cruel omnipotence.

All of this leads back to the elevator, that engine of rising and falling. In one digression--the story is studded with discursive tidbits--an ancient Empiricist gasbag remembers a faltering freight elevator he once inspected. The company had long before built a wooden box around the motor to dampen the noise. When he took an iron pipe and swung, "they all come streaming out it, thousands of the little black bastards." He's talking about cockroaches--and he's not. Whitehead's elevator first represents African-American economic elevation: the road north (or up), the construction jobs (building up), the middle-class educations made possible for children like Lila Mae. This elevator may crash suddenly, however--it has for many--and then what do you believe in?

For Lila Mae and all the bitter white working-class inspectors, the hope is another elevator--a great lift as wondrous and beneficent in effect as Elisha Otis's original 19th-century model. They dream of the "Second Elevation." The echo of Christian credo is hardly coincidental; most Americans, Whitehead knows, would be pressed to untangle their faith in God from their faith in upward mobility. It's not news that the poor are too often labeled morally inferior. At the end of her journey up and down through America's urban classes, Lila Mae judges her world "not ready" for the blessing of the Second Elevation. She's seen--she's been--the people who would be left grounded. She's made her own moral inspection.

Still, Whitehead would be letting down his Intuitionists if he'd been intending only a materialist critique of culture. Fulton's black box is also simply that: a coffin. A dying man writes himself out of the world, out of his body. In a section titled "From the lost notebooks of James Fulton," Whitehead lyrically pictures a ride in the perfect elevator: "At [floor] ninety, everything is air and the difference between you and the medium of your passage is disintegrating with every increment of the ascension. It's all bright and all the weight and cares you have been shedding are no longer weight and cares but brightness." Long afterward, you realize he's talking not about floors, but years: human age. Lila Mae can't re-create Fulton's perfect elevator; she must be her own.

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