Colson Whitehead’s Latest Novel Succinctly Explores What’s In A Name
When Colson Whitehead debuted with The Intuitionist in 1998, no one was quite sure what to call him. He was young, African-American, Harvard-educated, and New York-born. His picaresque allegories earned him comparisons to Thomas Pynchon; others were calling him the next Ralph Ellison.
Eight years later, with Apex Hides the Hurt, it’s safe to say that Whitehead has outdistanced most of those labels. With his latest work of fiction, the 37-year-old writer has found his voice. In today’s niche-oriented literary marketplace, that’s an accomplishment.
It’s not that Whitehead didn’t start off with a bang. The Intuitionist earned him a pile of great blurbs and made him a Pen/Hemingway finalist. The book was clever, exuberant, and stuffed—sometimes overstuffed—with allusions and metaphors. He certainly did his research—on elevators—and he had a good deal to say, primarily about racial ambiguity in midcentury Manhattan. But most of that was done at the expense of Apex’s central character, Lila Watson, who seems transparently manufactured to fit his plot.
Whitehead had to improve, and he did. Apex is the work of a writer who is just hitting his stride and isn’t going to run out of things to say any time soon. At 214 double-spaced pages, this is by far his shortest novel (his second, John Henry Days, ran about 350 pages). But you get the impression that, when dealing with the issues touched on here, brevity is hard work. There’s a good deal going on in this slim book, and Whitehead knows when to let it speak for itself.
The primary character of Apex, a nomenclature consultant hired by a small town, is, paradoxically, the only character in the novel without a name. Whitehead’s main character is understated, observant, and vulnerable: as an Ivy League-educated, 21st-century African-American whiz kid, he allows himself to be pulled around by others with their own agendas, but he feels strangely above the fray. He’s skeptical of white townies, but a little off put by the town’s black heritage as well.
The narrative twists around itself in this small, paralyzed Northeastern seaside town called Winthrop, where the narrator has been sent because of his well-earned professional reputation. As Whitehead explains in the book’s opening paragraph, “He came up with the names, and like any good parent, he knocked them around to teach them life lessons.” Years ago, he had come up with the name Apex for a “racially sensitive” bandage that offered different hues to match different shades of skin.
And Winthrop has some serious name issues. In 1867, migrating Southern blacks founded the town and named it Freedom. Then the place was appropriated by—and named after—the Winthrop family, which made its fortune on barbed wire. Now, a century later, Lucky Aberdeen, a software pioneer, wants to dump the Winthrop moniker and rehabilitate the town’s image by renaming it New Prospera. Regina Goode, a descendant of ex-slaves who founded the town, wants to restore the name Freedom. The narrator has been chosen to break the deadlock and come up with a new name. Whichever name he chooses will be accepted for at least a year.
Somehow, Whitehead keeps this proliferation of history and allegory under control. At some points he sounds like a slightly rattled comedian who isn’t quite sure who he’s talking to—then, at his best, Whitehead’s writing hits a revelatory tone that is difficult to find these days.
For Whitehead, the central image of the story overwhelms the plot. The narrator underwent his own gruesome transformation while coming up with the name Apex. Following a toe injury, he applied an Apex bandage to his foot, and the bandage so easily matched his skin color that he forgot about the injury itself. Then the toe started rotting.
The earlier Whitehead—or at least the one who wrote The Intuitionist—would have spelled out the significance of this particular incident. In that book, his characters had the annoying habit of lecturing the reader on the racial components of elevators. Here, Whitehead lets the images to speak for themselves.
Not that he thinks the narrator he created can take care of himself. The future he projects is, at best, uncertain. And as someone who earned his reputation coming up with names, you get an ominous feeling that he suspects they’ve worn themselves out, or stretched themselves thin. America, for instance, is one of his favorite names. But it has outlived its function:
It was one of those balloon names. It kept stretching as it filled up, getting bigger and thinner and thinner. What kind of gas it was, stretching the thing to its limits, who could say. Whatever we dreamed. And of course one day it would pop.
It’d be a mistake to explain what Whitehead is getting at with this strange, somewhat Kafkaesque tale. But racial ambiguity, assimilation, and economic transformation all come together under a vague label that no one really wants to pin down. You get the feeling that Whitehead is peering through America’s history and social fabric for clues that go far beyond any particular ethnic tension or predicament.
“He liked his epiphanies American: brief and illusory,” Whitehead writes at the novel’s end. “Pierce the veil, sure, that was one thing. To walk around with the weight of what he had witnessed, quite another.”
Apex Hides the Hurt, then, is about bearing witness. Whitehead does that with dark, sometimes bleak, irony but he pursues it with the eloquence of someone who has something at stake. That’s not an easy tone to come up with these days. And so far, Whitehead has negotiated the balance pretty well.