The Intuitionist, Colson Whitehead

This book is a serious contender for the number one spot in my list of all-time favourite novels. Colson Whitehead is a New York journalist who writes for The Village Voice. His book is set in an unnamed American city that is plainly New York or Chicago where crime, politics, race, and technology all interact on each other in original ways.

The time is a curious, yet completely convincing amalgam of the present and the worst aspects of the 1960s. It is a little like the time frame in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil – “Twenty minutes in the future” – yet somehow stuck in a dystopian past where technology is hell.

In this city of high rise buildings, everyday life is critically dependent on the smooth running of the city’s elevators, and so the Guild of elevator maintenance men (and they are men) has become politically powerful and part of the city’s corrupt machine politics. They are solidly conservative ( they even have their own unofficial regulation short-back-and sides haircut) and are so powerful they can close down a high-rise building with the stroke of a pen. They are white, Anglo-Saxon, male racists. Moreover, their maintenance methods are based on the measurement and control of nature that is an implicit part of western scientific rationalism.

Into this milieu comes the protagonist of the story. She – yes she – is black, and she is the intuitionist of the title. She does not rely on western scientific rationalism to maintain elevators, she relies on her feelings.

How Whitehead creates one of he best novels I have ever read out of these improbable ingredients is one of the miracles of modern literature, and this alone would probably get him in the top two of my list. But in addition, he proves himself to be a truly gifted writer, with breathtakingly original literary gems on practically every page. If you appreciate good writing, prepare to be astounded.

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