Friday, June 14, 2013

The Game Of the Name: Colson Whitehead's "Apex Hides the Hurt"

With occasional exceptions, it's a given that any author with a great track record and multiple novels will have at least one dud or misstep along the way. If this isn't the case, then the author will have a work or two that yields bitter hatred, even among his or her most devoted readers (for example, this seems to happen a lot with Philip Roth). With Colson Whitehead, I assumed Apex Hides the Hurt fell into the latter category. With the exception of Zone One, I've now read his entire fiction bibliography, and if possible, I hope to have all of his works read by the end of the year. Apex Hides the Hurt, published in 2006, never seems to get any attention, even among Whitehead's biggest fans and patrons. I never assumed it was bad, but rather I assumed it wasn't as good as the previous and subsequent novels. Last week, I went to check out my local library, something I had not done since moving to a new neighborhood at the end of April. The selection is small, but I found a copy of Apex and decided to see what it was all about. I'm now perplexed as to why this book isn't as lauded as The Intuitionist or Sag Harbor. Whitehead's works deal with racial and sociological issues blended with specific ideas: elevator repair, the folk tales of John Henry, and the autobiographical imagining of black residents of Sag Harbor in the 1980s. Apex uses marketing, small-town politics, and distinct personalities to explore the ideas of integrity, motives, and varying levels of identity. I loved the book, and I'm hoping that this essay will be a small addition in giving an unappreciated work some overdue attention.

The narrator is an unnamed nomenclature consultant with a legendary track record for giving new products imaginative, attention-grabbing names. This isn't just a knack, but rather an almost sixth sense, combined with hard work and an innate understanding of how a name can make or break a product. As it's described in the opening paragraph:

"He came up with the names. They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent the to see if they'd break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them (Whitehead 3)?"

He walks with a pronounced limp and has recently left his company (these points are mentioned right away, but the full details are revealed as the novel progresses). He's asked to visit a small town called Winthrop to mediate their proposal to rename the area, and interacts with three people with three different ideas. Lucky Aberdeen, a wealthy software CEO who has returned to the area (along with the hope of reviving it as a tech community), wants the town branded as New Prospera, a revitalized, almost Utopian designation. Regina Goode, the black mayor, has her heart set on Freedom, which the consultant finds unimaginative until he learns more about the black founds of the town. And Albie Winthrop, the namesake of the barbed wire producers who came before him, thinks his family name should remain. With this set-up, one would expect a tale of intense battles and double-crosses. While Whitehead does pepper the text with the occasional revelation, the consultant engages in relatively tame conversations with these three key citizens. While staying at the Winthrop Hotel, he quickly acquires a couple of nemeses--a very insistent housekeeper and a gruff bartender. These interactions are played very humorously, rendering the actual conversations about the town name more meaningful and thoughtful. There are no small town stereotypes at play, but rather some careful observations about how coming from a long line of family members in such a place can have an effect on one's identity. The bartender is one of the best examples of this:

"The bartender ran his cloth across nonexistent stains on glasses, lipstick that had not remained and specks that had not lingered. A streak of gray started at his forehead and fanned out into his Afro in a curly wedge, an ancient and hardwired pattern, in his genes. He watched the man wipe glass, hold up glass to the light to consider his handiwork. The day the bartender discovered that white spray in the mirror, as he was about to perform the daily trimming of his muttonchops, he knew he had become his grandfather, that he was truly his father's son beyond what the surname said. It was hard not to notice that the bartender had some old-school muttonchops, real daguerreotype shit, something to aspire to (Whitehead 21)."

The titular Apex is a fictional bandage that comes in many different color tones to serve a diverse population, and remains the best name created by the consultant. His history of working with the brand manages to tie together all of the plot themes while remaining its own, original story. As he does in his other works, Whitehead includes some factual history (namely Johnson & Johnson's Band-Aid) that goes along with the fictional story. By creating a perfect name for a revolutionary medical aid, complex sociology and personal history come into play. The actual bandage serves as a key plot point, and the Apex brand makes an unassumed link to Winthrop's history, being founded by black settlers and quickly being overtaken by whites.

"The whiz kid said, You manufacture this thing and call it flesh. It belongs to another race. I have different ideas about what color flesh is, he told them. We come in colors. We come in many colors. And we want to see ourselves when we look down at ourselves, our arms and legs. Around the table the men listened, and soon afterward they got to work. Somebody give this guy a raise.
At Ogilvy and Myrtle they knew the neighborhoods, some block by block, and they knew the hues of the people who lived there. They knew the cities and the colors of their mayors. They knew the colors of clientele and zip codes and could ship boxes accordingly.
They devised thirty hues originally, later knocked them down to twenty after research determined a zone of comfort. It didn't have to be perfect, just not too insulting (Whitehead 88-89)."

Whitehead's writing is full of keen observations, and sometimes he doesn't need to carefully weave them into the text; they need to be out in the open. The consultant visits with Albie Winthrop, a divorced, troubled man seeking to maintain the town's original name. He's lost almost everything, and he wants to hold on to a remaining strip of dignity. The two men went to the same college, an elite institution that forms the basis of a perceived bond on Albie's part. The consultant observes as an aside:

"He had found, in his life, that it was always a good policy to flee when white people felt compelled to inform you about their black friend, or black acquaintance, or black person they saw on the street that morning. There were many reasons to flee, but in this case the pertinent one was that the reference was intended to signal growing camaraderie (Whitehead 80-81)."

When he finds out the original name of the town was supposed to be Freedom, he deplores the blandness and ties it into overused names in products. He later learns the true meaning of the name, but offers a quick, witty analysis.

"Freedom. He whistled. If he'd offered up Freedom in a meeting, he'd have been run out of town, his colleagues in full jibber behind him, waving torches. It was like something from the B-GON days, an artifact of the most pained and witless nomenclature. Roach B-GON, Rat B-GON. Hope B-GON. Freedom was so defiantly unimaginative as to approach a kind of moral weakness (Whitehead 83)."

Even using a fictional town as the basis of the story, Whitehead manages to explore issues and normally disregarded facets of the areas around us. As the town history is revealed, the consultant begins to appreciate it. This isn't any sappy, sentimental warming of an otherwise calculating businessman, but a touching look at roots. In its fictional setting, it almost forces the reader to imagine his or her neighborhood and the complex histories behind it.

"[The Mayor] didn't speak for the rest of the ride to the hotel, leaving his eyes to jump from sign to sign. Winthrop's Virginias and Oaks were well within character for someone hungering after the connotations of the eastern establishment, he decided. Want to import the coast to the prairie? You have to learn how to be just as dull, name by name. Whereas the black settlers had different marketing priorities. Hope crossed Liberty, past the intersection of Salvation. Better than naming the streets after what they knew before they came here. Take Kidnap to the end, make a left on Torture, keep on 'til you get to Lynch. Follow the lights 'til you get to Genocide and stop at the dead end (Whitehead 128)."

I did a quick skim of the Apex Hides the Hurt Wikipedia page, and some of the criticisms levied against it could be valid. Whitehead has some obvious metaphors (a narrator renowned for clever names has no name of his own), and the revelation about the actual Apex bandage can be seen coming roughly halfway through the novel. There are a couple potential romances presented to the consultant, but nothing materializes. However, as I'm wont to point out in other cases, nothing Whitehead does is gimmicky. He's not fishing for any "gotcha" or "ah ha" moments, but lets them progress naturally. And the biggest revelation never comes (this might be a bit of a spoiler, but it has to do with the final vote on the naming rights of the town). The book was published right before the explosion of social media, and even then, marketing was dominating every aspect of our lives, so much that the battle over a town's name seems almost quaint, especially today. At my bookstore, I recently saw a book about how neuroscience and brain studies can be used for effective marketing, and it scared me to no end. Whitehead is truly deserving of the title "cultural commentator," and he does this in his fiction in fantastic ways. He's not exploiting any trends, but rather uses contemporary climates that end up having timeless things to say about daily life and interactions. Maybe in due time this book will get more attention, but for now, if this truly is Whitehead's "lesser work," that only speaks volumes of his artistry. This would probably be hailed as a masterpiece by other novelists, even though I'd call it just a very, very good book. His other novels border on masterpieces. This is a work that's entertaining, provoking, and one of the most enjoyable reading experiences I've had lately.

Work Cited:
Whitehead, Colson. Apex Hides the Hurt. Copyright 2006 by Colson Whitehead.

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