The Ascent of Man

Date: February 7, 1999, Late Edition - Final
Byline: By Gary Krist

By Colson Whitehead.
255 pp. New York:
Anchor Books/Doubleday. $19.95.


WITH his invention of the passenger elevator in the 1850's, Elisha Graves Otis didn't single-handedly create the modern age, but he did play a crucial role in getting it off the ground. Elevators, after all, are what first made practical the construction of buildings taller than five or six stories, altering the character of cities worldwide and setting off social and political upheavals that helped shape our 20th-century experience. Not a bad legacy for the designer of what is essentially a cramped box and a system of pulleys, counterweights and brakes.

While this notion of Otis as a founding father of modern society might be debatable, it serves quite well as the central tenet of ''The Intuitionist,'' Colson Whitehead's ingenious and starkly original first novel. In the skewed world that Whitehead creates -- a hard-boiled, pre-civil-rights New York of cigarette girls, automats and men in fedoras -- elevators are the dominant symbol of the times. The city's elevator inspectors, who enjoy an ''undeniable macho cachet'' among the general population, earn their mystique by publishing esoteric articles about elevators in a trade magazine called Lift. Meanwhile, power struggles within the Elevator Guild pervade the local news reports. In short, it's a New York where money and power -- those twin engines of all modern societies -- are inextricably associated with the politics of vertical transport.

Our touchstone in this altitude-obsessed world is Lila Mae Watson, a young independent-minded newcomer to the city, described as ''the first colored woman in the Department of Elevator Inspectors.'' Lila Mae is something of a pariah among old-school elevator men, not just because of her race and sex but because she is an Intuitionist, a member of a new breed of inspectors who do their job by sensing an elevator's psychic vibrations rather than examining the actual machinery. Although Intuitionists are controversial, they are rapidly gaining legitimacy -- not least because their accuracy rate is 10 percent higher than that of the more traditional Empiricists. In fact, the Intuitionist candidate for leadership of the guild could win the next election, something incumbent Empiricists would do anything to avoid -- even if it means arranging an elevator accident and then setting up a high-profile Intuitionist like Lila Mae to take the blame.

At this point, readers can be excused if they peg ''The Intuitionist'' as a parody, but Whitehead, a freelance journalist and former television columnist for The Village Voice, has lots more in mind than sending up the classic novel of big-city corruption. While he does fall back on the conventions of the genre (at one point, an overzealous reporter gets his fingers broken by thugs), he uses them mainly as narrative scaffolding for what emerges as his real project -- an ambitious, wide-ranging exploration of racial struggle and the dynamics of social progress. The idea of physical elevation, of course, has obvious metaphorical significance in this context, and Whitehead makes much of it, framing his subject as a contest between warring conceptions of how best to lift people from one level of being to the next. And since any attempt to replace ''the robust edifices of the old order'' is likely to spawn a thicket of deceptions and betrayals, his use of the film noir idiom proves cunningly apt.

Much of the intrigue of the plot hinges on a search for the so-called black box, a theoretical elevator (''the one that will deliver us from the cities we suffer now, these stunted shacks'') conceived by James Fulton, a giant of elevator studies, now deceased. Fulton, the founder of Intuitionism, supposedly wrote the plans for this ''perfect'' elevator in his last notebooks, which disappeared shortly after his death. Now some unknown person has sent tantalizing excerpts to various players in the industry. And since ''whoever owns the elevator owns the new cities,'' many people are desperate to obtain it. Lila Mae, like many a classic noir heroine, finds herself caught in the middle, manipulated by all sides.

WHILE it would be misguided to reduce the elements of ''The Intuitionist'' to simple allegorical equivalents, it seems clear that Whitehead intends this notion of a ''second elevation'' to suggest, among other things, a new stage in the evolution of African-American social identity. In the quoted excerpts from Fulton's writings, the great man speaks like a prophet, dreaming a world in which every race can rise above the earthbound limitations of a corrupt status quo. Lila Mae, as the pioneer black inspector, is a harbinger of that identity, rejecting the imperatives of Empiricism and working toward a different -- and perhaps uniquely black -- way of approaching the problems of elevation. ''White people's reality,'' she decides, ''is built on what things appear to be -- that's the business of Empiricism. They judge them on how they appear when held up to the light, the wear on the carriage buckle, the stress fractures in the motor casing.'' By following Fulton's lead, Lila Mae can help usher in a new age of perception, one that emphasizes not what the eye can see -- ''the skin of things'' -- but rather what the mind can imagine.

Ultimately, I'm not sure Whitehead is in full control of the many thematic elements he has unleashed in this dense and sometimes difficult book. Toward the end, when Lila Mae discovers the missing notebooks and the verticality rhetoric ratchets up a few more notches, one can sense Whitehead's ambition straining against the seams of the pulp fiction story he's chosen to contain it. He's obviously trying to do for second-generation elevator transport what Thomas Pynchon did for alternative mail delivery in ''The Crying of Lot 49'' -- using it ironically as a metaphor for a radical new way of restructuring the accepted reality. That's a tall order, but the fact that Whitehead has succeeded as well as he has is news worth spreading. Literary reputations may not always rise and fall as predictably as elevators, but if there's any justice in the world of fiction, Colson Whitehead's should be heading toward the upper floors.

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