Ups and Downs

Consider the elevator. Colson Whitehead did in his first novel, The Intuitionist, in which "the lift" occupies the center of a secret society. Certain elevators have minds of their own — in the same way that cars have “psychosomatic” problems that disappear without repair — and special ways of working that everyday people can’t (and shouldn’t) know. The title refers to a type of inspector who follows gut feelings and metaphysical feedback rather than math and engineering. The lead character is an intuitionist who’s also the first black female elevator inspector in an unnamed metropolis — and on the day she okays the system in a brand-new and much-celebrated high-rise, an elevator goes into a deadly free-fall. Whitehead vividly details a network of bureaucrats, politicians, engineers, and union bosses involved in shadowy intrigue that reads like it came from painstaking research of an obscure history. Throughout his career Whitehead has created such parallel worlds to explore history, race, politics, and mythology. The novel John Henry Days is set in such a world, in which a journalist fights to keep his soul after volunteering to run a public-relations gauntlet. The author has collected essays about his hometown in The Colossus of New York in addition to contributing to the New York Times, Harper’s, and the New Yorker. Not that we needed any more convincing, but in a review of John Henry Days John Updike wrote that the novel “does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world.” Even if the author’s world is wholly his own invention.
Tue., Oct. 25, 8 p.m., 2011

 
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