Verticality, architectural and social, is at the heart of Colson Whitehead's first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines twenty-first-century engineering feats with nineteenth-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city's first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial 'Intuitionist' method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.
As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae's quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent.