This debut novel by the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Underground Railroad wowed critics and readers everywhere and marked the debut of an important American writer.
Nominated as one of America’s best-loved novels by PBS’s The Great American Read
It is a time of calamity in a major metropolitan city's Department of Elevator Inspectors, and Lila Mae Watson, the first black female elevator inspector in the history of the department, is at the center of it. There are two warring factions within the department: the Empiricists, who work by the book and dutifully check for striations on the winch cable and such; and the Intuitionists, who are simply able to enter the elevator cab in question, meditate, and intuit any defects.
Lila Mae is an Intuitionist and, it just so happens, has the highest accuracy rate in the entire department. But when an elevator in a new city building goes into total freefall on Lila Mae's watch, chaos ensues. It's an election year in the Elevator Guild, and the good-old-boy Empiricists would love nothing more than to assign the blame to an Intuitionist. But Lila Mae is never wrong.
The sudden appearance of excerpts from the lost notebooks of Intuitionism's founder, James Fulton, has also caused quite a stir. The notebooks describe Fulton's work on the "black box," a perfect elevator that could reinvent the city as radically as the first passenger elevator did when patented by Elisha Otis in the nineteenth century. When Lila Mae goes underground to investigate the crash, she becomes involved in the search for the portions of the notebooks that are still missing and uncovers a secret that will change her life forever.
If you've ever wanted to know your elevator inspector better, Whitehead's meaty and mythic first novel may help you get acquainted. Set in a huge, unnamed city, it hinges on the friction between rival groups of inspectors--the Empiricists, who base their appraisals of elevators on careful observation, and the Intuitionists, who know the machines they work with so well that they can sense potential problems simply by standing inside one. When an elevator plummets several stories right after receiving an okay from Lila Mae Watson, the city's first black female Intuitionist elevator inspector, the woman immediately comes under suspicion of a gross error. As accusations cloud the air, she tries to clear her name and finds that her group is not without its scandals. Lily Mae weathers attacks by thugs, political crossfire between municipal factions and a flirtation with romance in a journey towards a plot twist thick with irony and social criticism. In this Gotham-esque sweatbox, every footstep echoes like a nickel hitting the bottom of a penny bank. Whitehead has created a self-contained universe in this novel, complete with its own mythology and history (re-created at length in the course of the narrative), and it is to his credit that he is able to weave in a meditation on race. He has a completely original story to tell, and he tells it well, successfully intertwining multiple plot lines and keeping his reader intrigued from the outset.