26 October 2010

Elevator operators.

(OK, The Intuitionist is actually about elevator inspectors, but who can resist the classic example of dactylic hexameter [the Homeric cadence]. Certainly not me!!)

So yeah, elevator inspectors, with the upward movement of elevators as a metaphor for African-American racial uplift, told through the downfall and increasing disillusionment of an unnamed-but-obviously-New-York-but-not-real-New-York-the-New-York-of-noir-city's first black female inspector, Lila Mae Watson. This just-slightly-off-kilter world is hilariously obsessed with elevators--vast amounts of political power are wielded by rival corporations and diametrically opposed factions with the Department itself, Empiricism and Intuitionism. There is, as I said, a noirishness to the story, with a stubborn, principled, but ultimately naive protagonist peeling back layers of corruption and cold-heartedness. And there's a humor running throughout, a kind of knowing "yeah, this is totally a novel about elevators" shrug that provided a much-needed counterpoint to Lila Mae's rather dour character. And yes, Whitehead's beautiful prose imbues the taken-for-granted elevator with a wonder and mysticism that would be impossible for a lesser writer to pull off--yesterday I saw an elevator inspection van on the street, and my heart leapt.

But I don't think he quite pulls off an even trickier feat: deploying a huge central metaphor/allegory without it sometimes becoming too pat, too obvious. OK, elevators go up, like African-American social mobility through the mechanism of the civil rights movement; OK, Empiricism is based on surface details (like segregating people based on appearance) and Intuitionism a holistic, internal approach (we're all brothers and sisters under the skin!). When this shoe drops fairly explicitly, quite late in the novel, I was a bit embarrassed for the book, because I feel like it's suddenly selling itself short. So many marvelous, intricate details (the collegial haircut sported by the male elevator inspectors, for instance; Lila Mae's only ally and his dogged determination to raise the profile of escalators) are unnecessary to the ultimately simple Empiricist=White=Bad, Intuitionist=Black=Good that if you decide it's all a racial allegory you lose a lot of the delight of the book--the speculative-fiction aspects of Whitehead having thought long and hard (and brought his ferocious talent to bear) on the idea of an elevator-mad universe. I feel like, in a way, viewing it as a Race Relations Novel is a way of side-stepping the world-building here, a way for critics to ensconce themselves squarely in the Literature purview without having to worry about having accidentally read something closer to sci-fi. I only blame Whitehead himself a little for this, really, because it's his flair for language and specifics that make it a great novel; but his critic-aided attempts to define the underlying abstractions keep it from being Great.

1 comment:

  1. There has been many cases like this and we fail to understand why these companies even exist. It is important that one hires an experienced Elevator inspections nyc company to assure the public safety.


Creative Commons License
Muse at Highway Speeds by http://museathighwayspeeds.blogspot.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.