Colson Whitehead made his debut in 1999 with the publication of his first novel The Intuitionist. At the time, the country was in the middle of a Y2K meltdown, Whitehead introduced us to Lila Mae Watson, a black, female elevator inspector under investigation after one of the lifts she inspected has failed. Lila Mae, a one-woman arsenal, would test an all-male corporate authority, teeming with integration angst, in search of the perfect black box, the elevator that would lead the people to the future—to freedom, or, at the very least, a kind of freedom. If there was a glorious future ahead for us on the other side of the Y2K bug, Lila Mae was getting us there.
Whitehead promptly garnered critical praise for the novel with comparisons to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. GQ enthusiastically called it one of the “most emphatically favorite works of fiction from the new millennium.” Just two short years later, when his second novel, John Henry Days, was published novelist John Updike would properly crown Whitehead in his review for The New Yorker: “The young African-American writer to watch may well be a thirty-one-year-old Harvard graduate with the vivid name of Colson Whitehead.”
Whitehead’s awards would rack up as quickly as his novels. Though not yet enjoying the commercial success of his contemporaries, Whitehead was a household name among literati yearning for the same critical attention. Following a Whiting, a MacArthur, a Young Lions and a Guggenheim as well as becoming a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Whitehead’s legacy seemed cemented. Whitehead could be called a writer’s writer, deserving of the awards and adulation. Have better flashbacks been written than Colson’s account of New York before the zombie apocalypse in Zone One? I would argue no, not since James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” where, till this day, we can still see those guitar strings flying. Is there a more dry, acerbic yet wholly captivating voice in contemporary fiction right now? Whitehead’s fiction is more expansive: sprawling, capricious narratives coupled with a lived wit: one that’s seen and knows too much.