Colson Whitehead came out of nowhere. A friend passed me The Intuitionist; I read a page and was immediately drawn in by the beauty of the phrases and the audacity of the ideas. Here’s a guy and a book I’d never heard of that just blew me away. It’s a wonderful experience that I get too infrequently.
With sentences redolent of dank atmosphere and cranky attitude, Whitehead shows us a beautifully feral cynicism that speaks of the world’s injustice and the ultimate reasons things happen in our society—money mostly, but there is still room for the random individual act based on principle or feeling or whatever you would like to call that amorphous energy that moves us. Aside from any message, I reveled in the pleasure of his well-wrought images, crafted in just a few words. For example, “a freelance poltergeist of metropolitan disquiet” or “her potted plant depotted, an akimbo regret of roots and soil.” Every act is steeped in murky, grim mystery—even eating:
She picks up a can of tinned meat from the kitchen floor. She digs out some of the gray material onto a piece of bread and mashes the meat into a lumpy layer with the underside of her spoon. The meat and bread are of the same consistency. The hunger dizziness in her head drains away down some inner sluice.
The novel is set in a city that feels like a sort of 1950s New York, though it is never explicitly named, yet the city is enough “every city” to be a parable, not a documentary. The ostensible subject, elevators, a.k.a. “short range vertical transport”—escalators also fit in this category, but they are the poor step-child to the higher status elevators—is also a metaphor for a deeper message. This book can be read as a detective novel with a twist and Whitehead nods explicitly to the genre on several occasions, most notably by creating explanatory conversations toward the end of the story. But to read it only this way would ignore the multiple layers waiting quietly in lightless elevator shafts, smoky union offices, and stale barrooms. This is a relatively small novel (255 pages) of big ideas: race, philosophy, art, irony.
And Whitehead’s not afraid to cut sharply into the substance of our world. He knows that ideas are dangerous, that the right idea at the right time can change the world: “They will have to destroy this city once we deliver the black box. The current bones will not accommodate the marrow of the device.” In particular, he knows that white people live in a made up world of privilege: “White people’s reality is built on what things appear to be . . . . They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light” But, “there is another world beyond this one. . . . Don’t believe your eyes.” And while he also talks about internalized oppression, he understands the ways that external oppression creates and reinforces that system. For example, women of color are not seen as agents of their own destiny, with dreams and the ability to make them happen: “these white men see her as a threat but refuse to make her a threat, cunning, duplicitous. They see her as a mule, ferrying information back and forth, not clever or curious enough to explore the contents. Brute. Black.”
The world Whitehead describes is not pretty. For individuals, he ascribes little chance of escape. “There was no hope for him . . . . He knows the other world he describes does not exist. There will be no redemption because the men who run this place do not want redemption. They want to be as near to hell as they can.” Nevertheless, the ending speaks of the next volume in this history, of the opportunity for progress, even as he sees that the opportunity is likely to be squandered, squashed. This does not mean we don’t continue to try.
Colson Whitehead is a brilliant, original prose artist. In The Intuitionist, his first novel, he displays a painfully bleak, stylistically gorgeous sensibility, together with a complex grasp of the realities in which we live. It’s the kind of pain I could go back to again and again.