Black History Month: “Apex Hides the Hurt”

Colson Whitehead’s 2006 novel “Apex Hides the Hurt” once again delves into issues of race and identity through a “nomenclature consultant” hired to help rename the town of Winthrop so it can be revived for the 21st century, but who is also going through his own crisis having named a successful but shoddy product, Apex, a Band-Aid competitor that comes in a variety of shades so the bandage can “disappear” on the skin of most anyone (and it is specifically targeted across the country by ZIP code).

Listen to an audio interview here.

Click “more” to read my review of the book.

The following review originally ran in the Times Union on June 4, 2006:

Colson Whitehead — hailed author, MacArthur grant “genius,” Whiting award winner — is one of the best minds of my generation. His new novel, “Apex Hides the Hurt” (Doubleday, 212 pages, $22.95), displays his wondrous intellectual dexterity with popular culture, identity and race, as well as unexpected levels of superficiality.

A town in Middle America wants a change. Winthrop was named for an industrialist who made a fortune in barbed wire, though the former black slaves who had first settled the town had called it Freedom. But now the factory sits idle, and a software magnate envisions a glorious rebirth that requires the right name. His idea: New Prospera. But the city council, which includes a Winthrop descendant, can’t agree.

Into this dispute comes the novel’s unnamed protagonist: the “nomenclature consultant.” He has had a string of spectacular successes, including naming the titular Band-Aid competitor, Apex (which hides the hurt because it comes in 24 “flesh” tones, strategically marketed with ZIP-code accuracy), but is only now returning to his true calling after a “misfortune” left him limping, with one toe amputated, and out of the agency he made wealthy.

Thus Whitehead establishes the main plots: What will be the town’s new name? What caused the nomenclature consultant’s setback? (And could there be some kind of redemption and connection between the two?)

The novel isn’t that long, so I won’t spoil what happens for those of you who are enticed by the prospect of a new Whitehead novel.

In the details

“Apex” reaches its zenith in small, humorous details, such as the nomenclature consultant’s rhapsody: “To have a name imprinted along the bottom of a Styrofoam container: this was immortality.”

And how he explains his job to another character: “Now who would want to buy a brand of diaper called Barnacle? No one would buy that. So I think up good names for things.”

And, in what seems like a change of heart, how he refers to the use of names of ancient cities and heroes in products as a movement from the sublime to the ridiculous: “But we reeled them in and kept them close to this muddy earth, and on the shelves of supermarkets they were artificial knee lubricants, sponges equipped with abrasive undersides, aerosol sprays that magically banished static cling. Such disreputable gods.”

All these comments on names and naming, however, are also reminders that Whitehead did not name his protagonist.

Is it a sign of respect for the character? If so, why have him lose a body part, a device that recalls the disintegration of the protagonist in Nathanael West’s classic “A Cool Million: The Dismantling of Lemuel Pitkin.”

Is it dramatic irony? If so, why would Whitehead want to distance his readers from the book’s main character?

Or is this all part of a postmodern stance?

Identity crisis

Whitehead’s novels have moved from a fictionalized world of big-city elevator inspectors that had a 1950s feel (“The Intuitionist”) to a make-believe publicity event celebrating a legend in West Virginia (“John Henry Days”) to an up-to-the-minute examination of a real civic identity crisis that should be familiar to residents of the Capital Region or Capital District or Metroland or Tech Valley — you get the idea.

But as the books have become more reality-based, they seem less real.

This dynamic is similar to the nomenclature’s thoughts about the difference between an item’s “right name,” which he bestows, and an item’s “true name,” which often is out of reach.

In a way, this is how the book works, brilliantly showing the outlines of the contemporary world, but never delving deeply into it.

In creating a counter-narrative to the expectations of transformation and redemption inherent in a new name, Whitehead creates a morality tale without a moral. And that emptiness may be his most brilliant, hardest-hitting comment of all: a reader’s desire to understand the namelessness of the nomenclature consultant can mirror the characters’ desires for transformation via the town’s new name, all of us together reaching for something that isn’t there.

The previous authors and writings featured on this blog for Black History Month:
“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”
Gwendolyn Brooks
August Wilson
“Our Nig” by Harriet Wilson
“Twelve Years A Slave” by Solomon Northup
“The Souls of Black Folks” by W.E.B. Du Bois
Langston Hughes
“Cane” by Jean Toomer
“The Great Negro Plot” by Mat Johnson
“Passing” by Nella Larsen
“Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
“The Autobiography of Malcolm X”
“I Have a Dream” speech”
“Sula” by Toni Morrison
“The Known World” by Edward P. Jones
“The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Up From Slavery” by Booker T. Washington
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
Sonia Sanchez
“Black Girl in the Ring” by Nola Hopkinson
June Jordan
“Flight to Canada” by Ishmael Reed
Gloria Naylor
“Fledgling” by Octavia E. Butler
Chester Himes


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