(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.