Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist (1999) tells the story of a black female elevator inspector who “intuits” the machines' safety. The protagonist searches for both those responsible for the apparent sabotage of an elevator for which she was responsible and the blueprints for “the Black Box,” the perfect elevator. The novel announces its participation in the tradition of African American literature by performing numerous standard tropes; it responds to the call of antebellum slave narratives by linking literacy and freedom and addresses topics such as double consciousness, invisibility, passing, and racial uplift. The ambiguity of its setting, which is congruent with its assertion of the inherent ambiguities of language and of individual and generic identities, marks The Intuitionist as an example of “postmodern” fiction. An analysis of the novel's allusions to the paraliterary genres of detective fiction and comic books reveals how its race consciousness and postmodernism inform each other. Samuel R. Delany theorizes paraliterature as the discursive other against which “literature” is defined. The Intuitionist takes paraliterature seriously so as to (1) pay homage to Edgar Allan Poe and participate in recent critical approaches to the father of detective fiction that read him in the context of the racial discourse of his day, and (2) critique the hierarchical thinking that both banishes comics to the realm of the “subliterary” and sustains racist ideology. In this sense, The Intuitionist reveals verticality to be “a risky enterprise.”

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