Books about Working (& other stuff)

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A while ago I read Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead, so I went back and read his first novel, The Intuitionist. People fell all over themselves in praise of it, and I liked it, but I wouldn’t have ranked it as one of the books of the millennium (as GQ or Esquire or somebody did).

That said, it is a smart book. Since I’m lazy, I’m going to borrow someone else’s account of the set up: “Two warring factions exist within the Department of Elevator Inspectors. The Empiricists are rational, by-the-book inspectors, who carefully check each gear, pulley and brake to ensure that vertical travel is safe in the city. Intuitionists simply step in an elevator and know if something is wrong. Lila Mae is the most accurate of the latter faction, but it’s an elevator that she inspected that goes into free-fall, embarrassing and potentially endangering the mayor.”

What works in the book is all the minutia of the elevator inspectors, and the slightly fantastic notion that they’re very important in an up-and-coming city (which is New York, circa a few decades ago when taxi dance girls still existed). The fact that the place and date are never nailed down makes it all kind of fantastic, but in a good way. I mean, it’s fitting, given that we’re talking about a woman who can intuit whether or not an elevator is in good repair.

What didn’t quite work for me was some of the philosophy of the perfect elevators, and these epistemological questions about whether an elevator goes/opens its doors when there’s no one inside, etc. Interesting, I suppose, but I have a BA in philosophy, and in any second-year philosophy class, such idle speculations won’t get you very far. (Actually, it’s a good way to show that—horrendous pun alert—your elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.)

Sorry; it’s my blog and I’ll make horrendous puns if I want to.

What also works is the way Whitehead writes about race. Considering how many white people I meet who think that racism no longer exists (always noted, I might add, only when in the presence of other white people), I liked seeing a good work of fiction treat it so intelligently.

Speaking of intelligently, I should have written about it two months ago when I actually read it, instead of now when it’s getting a little vague. Que sera sera, I suppose.

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I recently finished Richard Russo’s Straight Man, which has almost nothing to do with sexual preference, and much to do with professors at a crap university in rust-belt Pennsylvania. But wait, that’s better than it sounds.

Here’s the setup: “Russo’s protagonist is William Henry Devereaux, Jr., the reluctant chairman of the English department of a badly underfunded college in the Pennsylvania rust belt. Devereaux’s reluctance is partly rooted in his character — he is a born anarchist — and partly in the fact that his department is more savagely divided than the Balkans. In the course of a single week, Devereaux will have his nose mangled by an angry colleague, imagine his wife is having an affair with his dean, wonder if a curvaceous adjunct is trying to seduce him with peach pits, and threaten to execute a goose on local television. All this while coming to terms with his philandering father, the dereliction of his youthful promise, and the ominous failure of certain vital body functions.”

Long story short, it’s an academic satire (along with a sort of late-middle-age crisis), along the lines of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. And dang if it ain’t worth the read, even if you don’t care much about academe. Russo is funny, but also has a wonderful tone, a way of dealing with the absurdity of life in a way that doesn’t diminish his characters.

My only quibble, and it’s minor, is that it’s quite an ensemble, and since I often read on the train or at night before I go to bed, I’m not always up to keeping the whole parade identified. As a result, the lesser department members became a distant hazy fog that I mostly ignored, and when they walked on center stage, I could never remember who’d done what or if it mattered (luckily, it typically didn’t).