Apex Hides the Hurt: A Novel
by Colson Whitehead
Smart Fiction About Stupid Times
A review by Anna Godbersen
Almost any argument can be won by playing hearts; call a thing cold, less than human, and you can shoot it down quick. Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt, it could be said, is not the most human kind of book; like his two previous novels, it is stylish and allegorical, although far tidier, and it features a protagonist with an (only slightly) absurdist profession designed to shed a harsh light on certain corners of our culture. Whitehead's unnamed protagonist is a "nomenclature consultant," a gun for hire whose particular genius is the perfectly resonant brand name. His biggest and final coup in an easy upward trajectory of a career was the naming of a Band-Aid competitor that comes in different shades for different races; Apex really does hide the hurt, because it blends in with any color skin. When we first meet our nomenclature consultant, he has been called back to the field after a fall from grace (and a mysterious Apex-related toe injury), for a heady, unusual project. He has been flown into town, and his job is to name it. The town has had more than one name already, of course, one for each phase: When it was an all-black township it was Freedom; when it was ruled by a barbed wire magnate named Winthrop it was Winthrop; and now that it attracts new economy types, it would like to be New Prospera, if only our nomenclature consultant would come around and baptize it so. But our nomenclature consultant seems to have grown ambivalent about the gig.
The nomenclature consultant's lack of a name is not merely a cute inversion of his job; he is a debased, hobbled person, and the absence of a touchable human character at the center of Apex is profound. When he is being honest about what he does, he has to admit that, "he never got to the heart of the thing, he just slapped a bandage on it to keep the pus in." There are some funny riffs on advertising here ("it was his first sexual thought in months, not counting what had been wrought by that damned series of shampoo commercials"), 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.
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