The Promise of Verticality

  • Whether the subject is love or alienation, the invention of rich, new literary metaphors is difficult enough. When the subject is race in America, however, it's almost impossible. In his first novel, The Intuitionist (Anchor Books; 255 pages; $19.95), Colson Whitehead has solved the problem, coming up with the freshest racial allegory since Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye.

    His touchstone image: the modern elevator, that everyday mechanical wonder whose promise is to open up the sky, to loft human beings equally into the heavens. Without the elevator, space is scarce, the boundaries of the city grimly fixed. With it, there's hope of a place for everyone.

    Lila Mae Watson, Whitehead's hero, is an aging black elevator inspector in an unnamed eastern metropolis that resembles a Kafkaesque New York City. The bureaucracy of the elevator workers dominates the city government. That bureaucracy is divided between two main factions that vie with each other for political influence: the so-called Empiricists, a dry, hard-headed bunch who do their jobs with scientific precision; and the Intuitionists like Watson, who work by instinct, by feel. James Fulton, the Intuitionists' patron saint, is a deceased pioneer of "verticality" whose books contain cryptic, Masonic meditations that seem to address the nature of life: "We conform to objects, we capitulate to them. We need to reverse this order."

    When, as part of a contest between white power brokers, Watson is blamed for the catastrophic free fall of an elevator she inspected, the path to exoneration seems to lie in a thorough decoding of Fulton's mystic writings, particularly those on the "black box," a gravity-defying superelevator that represents liberation and transcendence.

    The story of how Watson comes to this quest, and where it ultimately leads her, is strange yet familiar. A child of the South, she worked her way up through the Byzantine white establishment by dint of stoic application and cheerful self-denial. Her city, which exists either in the near future or in the recent past, still refers to black people as coloreds and maintains a subtle quota system whose goal is not human equality but the appearance of social justice. The elevator bosses take their leisure at riotous banquets where the entertainment consists of humiliating minstrel shows. The civil rights movement, in Whitehead's parallel universe, either never happened or has been reversed. Either way the effect is eerie, suggesting that the path to freedom is not inevitable and never has been.

    Whitehead's fable is swift and pointed and by no means solely about race. Watson's tenaciousness, faith and curiosity are universal virtues, allowing her to maneuver in a society petrified by caste and class. What saves her, and ultimately brings her peace, is literature, the wisdom of the masters. The deeper she digs for knowledge and understanding, the higher she rises. A book is her black box.