The book is about Lila Mae Watson, the first female African-American (called "colored" in the book) Elevator Inspector in an alternate-universe New York. The city is never named, but I'd concluded it was New York long before I read the reviews that have others saying the same thing. And by the constant use of the word "colored," the prevalent racism, and some other social and technological hints, I have to assume the period is the late 1950s to the early 1960s. I'm referring to this as an "alternate universe" because of the considerably heightened interest in elevators - to the point that it's almost a religion, but it's still a commercial enterprise so that the mob controls much of the market. It's also "alternate universe" because of some of the implicit technology involved.
I was intrigued by the whole elevator-as-fetish idea, and there's some of that, but Whitehead seemed much more interested in making the book a discussion of racism. Since I was looking for a bit of escapist reading, it wasn't quite what I expected. From p.43 and 44: "Lila Mae lived in the janitor's closet because the Institute for Vertical Transport did not have living space for colored students." "Lila Mae did not mix much with the other students, who were in turn thankful that she had spared them the burden of false conciliation." "The admission of colored students to the Institute for Vertical Transport was staggered to prevent overlap and any possible fulminations or insurrections that might arise from that overlap." Whitehead ensures that there's also discussion of racism of African-Americans toward other African-Americans.
The author also has a penchant for big words: "He turned the pages slowly, moving on to other metropolitan catastrophes, the next mithridatic outrage, the pages fluttered behind the front page but the headline remained the same, in the same place hovering across from her." (p.180) Dictionary.com defines 'mithridatism' as "the production of immunity against the action of a poison by taking the poison in gradually increased doses." He had me running for the dictionary to look up "adumbrates" a few pages later, and at least a couple more times: I have a reasonably large vocabulary and popular fiction usually doesn't involve a dictionary more than once per book so this was pretty unusual.
His writing is very ... angular, jagged. It's good, but becomes wearing after a while. He works hard to make his characters, and the places they visit, unsympathetic and unattractive. We spend much of 250 pages with Lila Mae, but get very little sense of personality from her: she puts on her "game face" when she goes to work, and the book gives us very little sense of what goes on behind that game face. Other reviews made much of the metaphor of the elevator, and I got that he was trying for ... something, I just don't know what.