What's in a name? Shakespeare told us that a rose by any other name
would smell just as sweet. But what if the rose was called
something horrible like "rendered pork fat weed?" Would we even go
near it? In Colson Whitehead's new novel, APEX HIDES THE HURT, he
suggests that names are tied to identity and fate, and to the way
we understand and make sense of the world around us.
The ironically unnamed narrator of this short novel is a successful
nomenclature consultant. That is, he makes a lot of money naming
things. From cars to corporations, he teases the essence from the
product in order to name it. His highest achievement was naming a
new kind of bandage from an old struggling company, Apex. If you
recognize the importance of his masterpiece being called "apex,"
you can see already the way Whitehead plays with language and
meaning throughout the novel.
In fact, Apex brand bandages are so good that when the narrator
repeatedly stubs his toe, turning it into an infected mess, Apex
hides the damaged digit well and allows him to ignore the pain for
a little while longer. Apex hides the physical hurt and symbolizes
the consultant hiding or repressing his own emotional pain. As his
toe gets worse and worse, his interest in his work lessens, leading
up to a breakdown. But the tale of the toe, the breakdown and the
Apex account are just the back story. Now, after a self-imposed
seclusion due to his emotional crisis, the narrator is back to work
on the biggest account of his career: the naming of a town.
Winthrop is having a bit of an identity crisis. The town's most
prominent businessman wants it renamed New Prospera to reflect the
optimism and prosperity the town is boasting, but Albie Winthrop
wants the name to stay the same. Each man gets to vote and the
tiebreaker would go to the third councilperson, Regina Goode, but
she opts for the town's original name, Freedom, chosen by the freed
slaves who founded it. Our narrator can choose one of the above
names or, in fact, any name, and the town must keep it for a year.
Each of the three woo him in various ways trying to get him to see
the wisdom and tradition of the name they support. Each has a
strong and compelling case. Readers don't learn of the final
decision until the very end of the novel, and the suspense keeps
the story moving at a good pace and allows Whitehead time to
explore the less tangible things happening in his novel.
The comic premise gives Whitehead time and context to think about
names and identity, as well as history, progress and, of course,
marketing. In renaming Winthrop, the consultant must confront the
past, and what he finds is a story that hits home for him --- a
story of race and promise, of disappointment, and of barely hidden
Whitehead's novel is quick and witty, a post-modern condensed style
that refers to many aspects of American life (consumerism, racism,
packaging, history, capitalism, optimism) with both broad strokes
and fine detail. Often funny, it is overall a thought-provoking and
interesting novel. The protagonist is conflicted, not always
likable, but quite understandable in his search for meaning and
depth while still looking for the quick fix and easy way out.
APEX HIDES THE HURT is a highly recommendable novel.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 22, 2010
Apex Hides the Hurt