Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Intuitionist

They published this literally SECONDS after I submitted it, in spite of the two-star rating and in spite of the fact that I stuck an oral sex reference by way of Aerosmith in the title box. It's obvious that nobody read it before posting. And yet, come hell or high water, my Dhalgren review WILL. NOT. GO. UP. I really and truly do not understand these people.

So. Elevator inspectors. Okay. Why not? It's one of these little sort of shadow cultures that one knows intellectually must exist, but that one never really HEARS about, unless, presumably, one is directly involved with it. As such, it's actually pretty perfect for for a paranoid, postmodern conspiracy novel. And Whitehead has either done a lot of research on elevators or is just really good at faking it.

So that's all well and good. But The Intuitionist never really follows through on its intriguing premise. One gets the very strong impression that Whitehead is trying to write something akin to The Crying of Lot 49--there are strong similarities between the two books--but he doesn't come anywhere near to succeeding. As interesting as the elevator conceit is, it remains pretty thinly-drawn throughout. One never really gets much of a sense of the different factions' machinations beyond the most superficial level. And if you find the idea of intuitionists, inspectors who assess elevators by "feeling" them, intriguing and would like to know more--too bad. I just described their methodology in as much detail as Whitehead ever does. Pynchon no doubt would have done a bang-up job of this, had he been so inclined. But Whitehead, on the evidence of this novel at least, is no Pynchon.

It's hard to have a racial allegory if you're not willing to delve deeply into a society's psyche, but Whitehead proves either unwilling or unable. The larger society of which he writes is as vague and unconvincing as the elevator inspecting business itself. The novel takes place in the forties? Fifties? Who can say? It's not particularly believable as ANY given time period; the degree of racism inherent in it seems to fluctuate according to what is necessary for a given scene.

The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black female elevator inspector, and since she operates within the confines of a marginalized branch of elevator inspection, the intriguing possibility presents itself of reading her as a kind of subaltern (may god, if not man, forgive me for using that word). That, at any rate, would provide a justification, albeit a rather baroque one, for why she's such a remarkably dull, nondescript character. I'm not really buying it, though. If that IS what Whitehead is aiming for, he's doing a remarkably poor job of it; this avenue is never explored in any adequate way. As a character with such a pivotal role, we NEED some idea of what makes her tick, and that is something that we never get.

It's easy to compare her to Lot 49's Oedipa Maas--they're both women thrown into unfamiliar, dehistoricized situations trying to penetrate giant, monolithic conspiracies--but Oedipa is only required to serve as a kind of everywoman; she's certainly not Pynchon's most finely-drawn character, but that's not really the point. Lila Mae, on the other hand, is absolutely central to the point of The Intuitionist, and in that regard she just doesn't pass muster. Their different purposes notwithstanding, Oedipa remains a much more vivid character. That's not good.

In fact, it would be fair to say that, on top of everything else, it drags down the novel. Neither Lila Mae nor anyone else in the novel is even slightly compelling, and without any interesting plotting or well-developed ideas to make up for that...well, there just ain't much left.

This is Whitehead's first novel, of course, so maybe he's improved. I can't say I'm much moved to find out, though. The praise lavished on this one suggests to me an audience so wowed by the premise that they're willing to forgive the sub-par execution.

6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

I'm telling you, they have long switched to using automatic scripts to filter the reviews. If the script doesn't find anything "objectionable," it immediately posts the thing, otherwise it doesn't. It would seem that "going down" is not on the machine's list of bad words, but something you had in the other review might be.

SK

12:17 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

I think you're right. I'm going to star submitting review that are nothing more than long strings of misspelled swear words.

3:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Although they did, in fact, post your other review, it's just dated September of 1999, so it's buried quite a way back in there. Sadly, there's no way to fix that unless you find a totally different edition of the book, that has a different set of reviews which you haven't posted in.

Hey, it's not so bad, you were able to post 300 of the damn things. I actually quite enjoy reading your reviews, you ought to write more. Possibly containing long strings of misspelled swear words.

SK

4:24 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

Whaddaya know about that? I think they buried it because THEY don't want the people to know THE TRUTH. It's actually kind of bizarre, because now anyone seeing it will imagine that I write the same way now that I did nine years ago. Ack! History is collapsing! Postmodernismblargh!

Anyway, thank you. I like writing them once I've gotten into a groove; it's just often hard to push myself. I enjoy your reviews as well.

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Ah, no, the truth is more prosaic: if you delete your old review and rewrite it, the new version will have the same date as the old one. So, you're stuck with the date of your original review. That happened to me too -- I actually bitched to them about it, but they said it was their policy and they can't go against it. Bastards!

SK

9:32 PM  
Blogger GeoX pontificated to the effect that...

How peculiar. That must mean they preserve records of deleted review forever. Is it to stop obnoxious people from constantly deleting and reposting their reviews to bump them to the top of the page? But that would also reset their 'helpful' count, and it's hard to imagine someone that intent on visibility not caring about that. HMMM.

3:25 AM  

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