Details: (c) 1999 Colson Whitehead; Pub Anchor Books 2000; ISBN 0-385-49300-2
Verdict: The intuitionist is thoughtful and readable.
Reasons for reading it: I wanted to expand my horizons a bit and try something I don't normally read, and contemporary American literature definitely falls into that category.
How it came into my hands: The ever-wonderful staubundsterne sent it to me as part of my prize from the livelongnmarry auction.
The intutionist is billed as an allegory of American race relations, but it's not very allegorical, since it's a story about an African-American woman navigating a nearly realist, racist America. It's only alternate history to the extent that makes it possible to write about political events without getting sued, set in an unnamed city which is fairly obviously New York. I don't know enough American social history to pinpoint the era exactly, but I guess somewhere mid-twentieth century, given both the technology and the social attitudes. (As an aside, I find it really awkward to read something that keeps using the term colored; that word just looks like a racial slur to me, even though I know that it was the correct term for the era.)
Although the book is very clever and literary, the characterization is strong enough that I cared about the surface level story. I really felt inside Lila Mae's head, and the book did an amazing job of making me care about the details of lift machinery, even totally imaginary lift machinery! She's likeable without being excessively perfect, and when the book gives occasional glimpses of someone else's viewpoint, they are really distinct characters and just as sympathetic. I found it fascinating that the white characters are described in physical ways to emphasize their whiteness, whereas the African American characters are just people; I don't know if that's deliberate parody of the way that some novels really emphasize the racial characteristics of the token characters of colour, or if it's just because that's how Lila Mae perceives the world.
It's not at all a preachy book, it's saying something vastly more subtle than the usual Issue book thing of "racism is bad, mmkay?". It really makes Lila Mae's experience of the white-dominated world visceral, and the contrasting stories really help to illumiate the point: Pompey who seems like an "Uncle Tom" but turns out to be human after all, and the light-skinned guy who manages to make it in white politics by hiding his origins. The only time it gets heavy-handed is when Lila Mae disguises herself as a waitress and witnesses a minstrel show, but even that's not too egregious.
The writing is of a very high standard; there are some beautifully poetic scenes, but it's not over-wrought. Indeed, the atmosphere created by the prose really reflects the setting in an obscure government department that only gets exciting at around election time. It's powerful, almost journalistically matter-of-fact, but at the same time each word is doing exactly the right job.
If I have a complaint, it's that the resolution is too pat; Urich just shows up and reveals all the machinations to Lila Mae, and after that everything runs too fast to a happy ending. That spoils the tension and double-crossing and intrigue that are such a strength of the rest of the book. Still, all in all this was very well worth reading, and I learnt a lot from it even though I didn't feel at the time as if I was being Educated. Thank you so much, staubundsterne!