The conceit of the novel is that the elevator, in this pre-computer-era, very analog, unnamed New York City, is the most important technological device of the times, at least to those who inspect them. They have come to take the machines so importantly that prestigious universities have been established to teach theories of elevator mechanics under the watchful eye of St. Roland, the patron of these devotionalists. There has even been a reformation of sorts among their ranks, with James Fulton, as Luther, veering away from the empirical techniques of merely looking at the surfaces of gear boxes, cables, etc., and instead intuiting what the elevator wants, or separating it from its "elevatorness." Whitehead presents much of this with a very straight face, giving the reader somewhat indigestible chunks of information on the performance and mechanics of these machines, outlining the battle for status among those who service escalators, explicating the political games between the companies who design the devices, the Guild which inspects them, and those Intuitionists and Empiricists who compete for control of the inspectors.
Rather than descending into a too clever faux-sociological pastiche, however, the book reads much like a cyber-punk novel in which the science has merely been back-dated about a hundred years. Computer networks are replaced by those ranks of gleaming lifts which have changed the shape of the cities. Now there are rumors of plans for a perfect elevator, a "black box" designed by James Fulton, originator of Intuitionism, which will offer the chance to rise to "a second elevation" in which the old cities would be destroyed again and replaced by new forms unimaginable to the present.
The trick played on these genre expectations of salvation through better science, however, is that Lila Mae Watson, the focal character in this drama, is a black woman struggling for a place in pre-Civil Rights era America. She has unwittingly come to the attention of the most powerful players in the politics of elevation, but finds that her struggle won't be to change the face of technology. Rather, her frightening experiences with those in power, those striving for power, and those keeping an eye on the powerful, lead her toward changing her notions of elevating the race. And as she digs deeper past the deceptions and conspiracies around her, she learns that she herself may even be able to play a role through this black box in lifting black America.