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 hurt.
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