This is an interesting book, published in 2002, which has sparked ratings all across the spectrum. I think it is because it is a many layered book, being about elevators in the beginning of the 20th century, about race, a LOT about race, about a mystery, about corporate greed, about unions, social commentary, all wrapped up in a noir story set in an unnamed city which is definitely New York in the early-ish 1900s to 50’s-ish.
First of all, it is humorous in its way, featuring elevator inspectors as an important, respected and prestigious department of the city government. Graduates of the various elevator inspection institutions are recruited by the big elevator manufacturers, much as today graduates of prestigious colleges are recruited by law firms, tech firms, pharm firms, etc. They have an association, analogous to the powerful unions, and there are a couple of monthly magazines devoted to elevators, their inspection, maintenance, installation, the most important of these being Lift. This is all detailed not tongue in cheek, but very seriously.
Lila Mae Watson is the first black woman to be hired as an elevator inspector in the prestigious but fictional Elevator Inspection Department of the city. She is the first black female graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport, and has dreams of verticality, of huge soaring buildings in which elevators play a prominent part.
She is given charge of the newest sky scraper building, the Fanny Briggs, building, named in honor of a salve who taught herself how to read. It is a prestigious assignment, and we don’t need to guess too hard why she, Lila Mae, a black female, was assigned this building.
However. One of the elevators went into free fall, killing some people. And guess who is getting the blame?
The book treats the two opposing beliefs on how to inspect elevators as an allegory for religion. One group, the conservative Empiricists, believe inspections must be made hands on, in person. The Intuitionists, of which Lila Mae is a subscriber, have learned how to feel, hear, sense, the mechanisms, what might be amiss, what might be sticking, or wearing out. She is never wrong, in her three years working for the department.
The man running for president of the association is an Empiricist, and well connected with the lesser honorable elements of the city and its government agencies. His opponent is an Intuitionist. It is suspected that there was sabotage of the Fanny Briggs elevator, to bring discredit upon a) Intuitionists, b) black people and c) females.
So the book’s main actual plotline is the search for the perpetrator of the act, keeping Lila Mae out of trouble, and the attempt to give the Intuitionists more credence. The Intuitionists main guru, deceased, although he has written a number of books on the subject, has also written a number of journals and personal works, which are believed to contain his schematics for a ‘black box’, a mechanism which will allow elevators to soar almost infinitely into the sky, very metaphysical, and in keeping with the religious allegory, remind us of the tower of Babel, and how well that effort went. The two sides apparently have no scruples as to how they get their hands on these papers, and consequently the black box.
Very clever writing, and I am pleased to offer you a few quotes for your delectation.
Arbo [a major elevator manufacturer] spent millions promoting the Smooth-Glide in the trades and at conventions. They were the first to understand the dark powers of the bikini.
…what every passenger feels acutely about elevators. That they ride in a box on a rope in a pit.
and as Lila Mae views the architecture of the city with disdain as dumpy, awkward and ugly, she thinks
the will to squat that roosts in the soul of every city architect. Government buildings are generallysquat rather than tall….
You know, when you think about it, she is right.
I loved this book. As I said above, it has many layers, and rereading to concentrate on only one its themes can be very profitable.