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Apex Hides the Hurtby Colson Whitehead
"There are some funny riffs on advertising here...as well as some wry commentary on how we talk about race nowadays. And of course, anything Whitehead writes is worth reading for the brilliance and originality of his phrasing. But the reason Whitehead's third novel is so moving and worthwhile is that he perfectly nails the tragic/comic nature of our smoothly packaged, hyper-verbal, and strangely stupid times." Anna Godbersen, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
Synopses & Reviews
From the MacArthur and Whiting Award?winning author of John Henry Days and The Intuitionist comes a new, brisk, comic tour de force about identity, history, and the adhesive bandage industry.
When the town of Winthrop needed a new name for their town, they did what anyone would do — they hired a consultant.
The protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a nomenclature consultant. If you want just the right name for your new product, be it automobile or antidepressant, sneaker or spoon, he's the man to get the job done. Wardrobe lack pizzazz? Come to the Outfit Outlet. Always the wallflower at social gatherings? Try Loquacia.
And of course, whenever you take a fall, reach for Apex, because Apex Hides the Hurt. Apex is his crowning achievement, the multicultural bandage that has revolutionized the adhesive bandage industry. Flesh-colored be damned — no matter what your skin tone is, Apex will match it or your money back.
After leaving his job (following a mysterious misfortune), his expertise is called upon by the town of Winthrop. Once there, he meets the town council, who will try to sway his opinion over the coming days.
Our expert must decide the outcome, with all its implications for the town's future. Which name will he choose? Or perhaps he will devise his own? And what's with his limp, anyway?
Apex Hides the Hurt brilliantly and wryly satirizes our contemporary culture, where memory and history are subsumed by the tides of marketing.
"Following the novels The Intuitionist (1998) and John Henry Days (2001), and the nonfiction The Colossus of New York (2004), a paean to New York City, Whitehead disappoints in this intriguingly conceived but static tale of a small town with an identity crisis. A conspicuously unnamed African-American 'nomenclature consultant' has had big success in branding Apex bandages, which come in custom shades to match any skin tone. The 'hurt' of the Apex tag line is deviously resonant, poetically invoking banal scrapes and deep-seated, historical injustice; both types of wounds are festering in the town of Winthrop, which looks like a midwestern anytown but was founded by ex-slaves migrating during Reconstruction. Winthrop's town council, locked in a dispute over the town's name, have called in the protagonist to decide. Of the three council members, Mayor Regina Goode, who is black and a descendant of the town's founders, wants to revert to the town's original name, Freedom. 'Lucky' Aberdine, a white local boy turned software magnate, favors the professionally crafted New Prospera; and no-visible-means-of-support 'Uncle Albie' Winthrop (also white) sees no sense in changing the town's long-standing name — which, of course, happens to be his own. Quirky what's-in-a-name??style pontificating follows, and it often feels as if Whitehead is just thinking out loud as the nomenclature consultant weighs the arguments, meets the citizens and worries over the mysterious 'misfortune' that has recently shaken his faith in his work (and even taken one of his toes). The Apex backstory spins out in a slow, retrospective treatment that competes with the town's travails. The bickering runs its course listlessly, and a last-minute discovery provides a convenient, bittersweet resolution. Whitehead's third novel attempts to confront a very large problem: How can a society progress while keeping a real sense of history — when a language for that history doesn't exist and progress itself seems bankrupt? But he doesn't give the problem enough room enough to develop, and none of his characters is rich enough to give it weight." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'Apex Hides the Hurt,' Colson Whitehead's third novel, is so deceptively simple that it risks sounding like just another skirmish in the ongoing conflict between young, cerebral novelists and our consumerist culture. Whereas Whitehead's 'John Henry Days' (2001) was a sweeping and formidable campaign of realistic satire, it's tempting to regard this new novel as a minor and predictable allegory. The... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) book, however, deserves a better reading than that. The unnamed protagonist is a 'nomenclature consultant.' He names things, products mostly, but in this case he's been hired to rename a town. It is currently known as Winthrop, after the barbed-wire magnate who incorporated it (and, presumably, after the Puritan preacher John Winthrop, who called America the 'city on a hill' and in so doing became our first national PR flack). The current representative of the Winthrop clan is Albie, an effete and comically hapless blueblood who would prefer that the name stay as is. Lucky Aberdeen, a cartoonish new-economy type who runs a local software company looking to attract talent, has proposed New Prospera as an alternative. Regina Goode, a descendant of the former slaves who founded the town, suggests they revert to the settlement's original name, Freedom. The nomenclature consultant has been brought in to adjudicate. He is unsurprisingly cynical about his job. As he explains in a typical spiel, 'You have some kind of pill to put people to sleep or make them less depressed so they can accept the world. Well you need a reassuring name that will make them believe in the pill. Or you have a new diaper. Now who would want to buy a brand of diaper called Barnacle?' He can only condescend to the multitudes, the 'Great Unwashed, the clueless saps who came to his names and connotations seeking safe shores and fresh starts. Try This, it will spackle those dings and dents in your self. Try New and Improved That, it will help keep your mind off the decay.' He enjoys celebrity status in the trade for having christened Apex, the first multicultural adhesive bandage, and he is both fixated on his greatest success and haunted by it. Apex's chromatic range atones for years of 'flesh-colored' Band-Aids. 'In the advertising, multicultural children skinned knees, revealing the blood beneath, the commonality of wound, they were all brothers now, and multicultural bandages were affixed to red boo-boos.' The symbolic drift is obvious: Over the past two generations, African-Americans have been welcomed into the shoals. They've been invited to palliate their injuries, personal and historical, with products that 'hide the hurt.' Whitehead lays it on pretty thick here, but this thickness is precisely the book's point. His protagonist compulsively deconstructs the spin he is paid to proliferate. He's moved by contradictory impulses: He takes great pleasure in both embroidering fantasy and unweaving it. He insists on his status as a corporate cog yet relishes his work. He devises increasingly ingenious least-common-denominator slogans, but his own observations are thoughtful and original, if ponderous. He is given to ruminations on the significance of, say, shuttle buses: 'As perfect containers of that moment between anticipation and event, as roving four-wheeled or six-wheeled conveyances of hope, shuttle buses cannot be blamed if the destination disappoints, if desire is counterfeited, if after all that dreaming all we have to show are ashes.' His expertise is in such counterfeiting: He knows that the promise in a name such as New Prospera is, at best, nominal. He is well aware that Apex only hides the hurt. He knows these things all too well; that is his limitation. He clings to his cynicism. The great intelligence of this book is in Whitehead's sympathetic understanding of this character's abiding faith in his own incredulity. If he can successfully identify the con, if he can be sure it's all counterfeit, he can inoculate himself against expectation and disappointment. But, of course, he also has warned off hope. In choosing a name for Winthrop, he begins to acknowledge the way his skepticism has become his credo. Whitehead explores this territory keenly, but it's familiar ground for much contemporary American fiction. It's the racial dimension that distinguishes his work. Whitehead's white contemporaries often allow themselves to contrast media-age irony with some bygone moment of sincerity. But African-Americans do not have the luxury of that nostalgia. The narrator remarks that Apex bandages sell because they 'so efficiently permitted the illusion of a time before the fall.' Whitehead's protagonist knows too much about history to buy such myths, but he also knows too much about the present to suffer the guileless. By the time he makes his decision regarding the town's new name, he understands that naming can be canny without being manipulative: This river town's name could conjure meaningful associations rather than just manufacture fantasy. Names can acknowledge history instead of effacing it, and they can do so without reverting to the overly literal. 'What did a slave know that we didn't?' he asks himself before he makes his decision. 'To give yourself a name is power.' A name cannot be transformative on its own, but it can serve as one bold act in an ongoing struggle." Reviewed by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"In spare and evocative prose, Whitehead does Shakespeare one better: What's in a name, and how does our identity relate to our own sense of who we are?" Library Journal
"Cultural insight, conceptual ingenuity and cutting-edge humor distinguish the third novel by a New York writer who never fails to engage and intrigue....While making no attempt at depth of characterization, Whitehead audaciously blurs the line between social realism and fabulist satire." Kirkus Reviews
"[B]rims with the author's spiky humor and intelligence....Not a whole lot happens...but Whitehead's ruminations on the power of names, the fatuity of corporate life, advertising, race relations, and American aspirations are almost pleasure enough. (Grade: B)" Entertainment Weekly
"Whitehead...continues his shrewd and playful inquiry into the American soul in a fresh and provocative tale....Whitehead archly explicates the philosophy of excess and the poetics of ludicrousness, and he incisively assesses the power inherent in the act of naming." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Engaging and provocative....But ultimately, Apex falls short because its protagonist, engaging as he is, lacks heart." Los Angeles Times
"Whitehead is making a strong case for a new name of his own: that of the best of the new generation of American novelists....The central plot line is reminiscent of William Gaddis's epic-length parodies of modern America's absurdities, but Whitehead prefers a leaner, meaner brand of prose." Boston Globe
"In a world crowded with big, bossy novels insisting on taking us to the ends of the earth, Colson Whitehead offers a short, quiet invitation to bum around town." Daniel Handler, Newsday
The town of Winthrop has decided it needs a new name. The resident software millionaire wants to call it New Prospera; the mayor wants to return to the original choice of the founding black settlers; and the towns aristocracy sees no reason to change the name at all. What they need, they realize, is a nomenclature consultant. And, it turns out, the consultant needs them. But in a culture overwhelmed by marketing, the name is everything and our heros efforts may result in not just a new name for the town but a new and subtler truth about it as well.
About the Author
is the author of the novels The Intuitionist and
John Henry Days, and a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York.
He lives in Brooklyn.
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