A dizzyingly-high-concept debut of genuine originality, despite its indebtedness to a specific source, ironically echoes and amusingly inverts Ralph Ellison’s classic Invisible Man.
In a deftly plotted mystery and quest tale that’s also a teasing intellectual adventure, Whitehead traces the continuing education of Lila Mae Watson, the first black woman graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport and thus first of her race and gender to be employed by the Department of Elevator Inspectors. In a “famous city” that appears to be a future New York, Lila Mae compiles a perfect safety record working as an “Intuitionist” inspector who, through meditation, “senses” the condition of the elevators she’s assigned. But after an episode of “total freefall” in one of “her” elevators leads to an elaborate investigation, Lila Mae is drawn into conflict with one of the Elevator Guild’s “Empiricists,” those who, unlike Intuitionists, focus their attention on literal mechanical failures. Furthermore, it’s an election year for the Guild, pitting Intuitionist candidate Orville Lever against crafty Empiricist Frank Chancre, who has surreptitiously enlisted the muscle of mobster Johnny Shush. Hoping to escape these distractions while proving herself innocent, Lila Mae goes “underground” and makes some dangerous discoveries about the ideas and the life of Intuitionism’s founder, James Fulton, a visionary known to have been working on a “black box” that would revolutionize elevator construction and alter the nature of urban life forever. Lila Mae’s odyssey involves her further with such mysterious characters as Fulton’s former housemaid and lover, her circumspect “house nigger” colleague Pompey, a charmer named Natchez, who claims he’s Fulton’s nephew, and sinister Internal Affairs investigator Bart Arbogast.
Whitehead skillfully orchestrates these noirish particulars together with an enormity of technical-mechanical detail and resonant meditations on social and racial issues, bringing all into a many-leveled narrative equally effective as detective story and philosophical novel. Ralph Ellison would be proud.