I root for Colson Whitehead, as you know. The Intuitionist came along in my life at a time when I really needed something to knock me out, and it more than did the job. I’ve had my eyes on Whitehead ever since. Even though I didn’t think his second novel, John Henry Days, was terribly successful, I still respected it. The Colossus of New York, a book of paeans to the city released last year, was a showcase for his rhythmic prose, though what I really wanted was a new novel. Finally it has arrived: Apex Hides the Hurt. And while I enjoyed it more than JHD, Whitehead still hasn’t reached the heights that The Intuitionist hinted he could achieve.
I whipped through Apex faster than anything I’ve read in at least the last year. I chewed it up in just two days, which if nothing else is a testament to Whitehead's gift for prose and pacing. Apex has an inventive premise and plot and plenty of beautiful lines to keep your eyes dancing. The story revolves around a “nomenclature consultant”—a man whose profession is to name things, be they cars, pills, or bandages. He holds his profession in high regard; like Lila Mae in The Intuitionist, it’s more a craft than a job. He can do this virtually in his sleep (as when a car company wants to name a new product “the something 100,” and he simply says “give them a Q,” and the Q-100 is born). This obsessive attention to work as craft is partly what imbibed The Intuitionist with so much life, and what to a lesser extent keeps much of Apex afloat. But Lila Mae’s knowledge was intertwined with a fight—she was the best at what she did, but she was at the very bottom of the ladder (er, elevator shaft), career-wise. The protagonist of Apex is the opposite: thanks to Apex bandages, he is legendary in his field, but after an inexplicably ludicrous toe injury (again, partly thanks to Apex) he loses the drive. He leaves the business.
The novel really begins when our protagonist is pulled back into the game. He is referred by his old boss to Winthrop, a small but growing town looking to rebrand itself. The city council is made up of three people: Albie Winthrop, the eccentric but financially ruined namesake of the town; Mayor Regina Goode, whose local ancestry goes even further back than Albie’s; and Lucky Aberdeen, the new millionaire on the block, who has a serious financial stake in raising the profile and desirability of the town. It only takes a 2–1 majority to rename the town, but each of course has their own idea—one wants it to stay as is, one to return to its original, pre-Winthrop designation, and one for a brand new name for the future. Hence, the nomenclature consultant is brought in to arbitrate. He does so, but on the condition that what he ultimately chooses must go, for a minimum of one year. The councilmembers take the gamble, and the rest of the novel concerns our protagonist’s research into the town’s history and each of the three councilmembers’ overtures for their proposed names.
At the core of the book is an existential battle—what is a thing, or a town, or a person; and what is its name? Are they one and the same? Can the name change but the essence remain unchanged, or is the name more important than the essence? Its no coincidence that our protagonist is given no name, yet he believes it is just that which confers immortality on a thing. Wrapped up in this question is the history of America itself: is “America” the nation that once enslaved a people? Is it the country that drives today’s global economy? Can it be one and the same? Just what does that word mean, anyway, America? Once, after all, it was someone's name.
In the end, our protagonist claims a name for the town, and one that perhaps could best sum up what America does mean in each and all of its moments in history. As far as the allegorical nature of the book goes, it works well. But this is at the expense of the plot; at one point he realizes that his clients are more than the three members of the city council, but the thousands of people that live there now and will live there in the future. Yet he seems to disregard all of them when he makes his final decision. If I lived in Winthrop, I know I’d be pissed to learn the new name of my town. Then again, Truth or Consequences, NM isn’t a ghost town, so I guess not everything is in a name.
Ultimately, Apex is a good novel, but flawed. The same could be said for all of Whitehead’s books. While I recommend The Intuitionist to anyone who will listen, I also recognize that it jumps the tracks here and there. And John Henry Days is much too all over the place, for my tastes—the book is meant to be a chorus of plots, but the result is too fragmented. With Apex, Whitehead has managed to rein things in and keep his plot more focused than ever, but in the process he sacrifices the depth that characterized his two previous novels. As most any other review of this book as also made clear, it’s not much of a stretch to use the band-aid as a metaphor for contemporary race relations—I get it, there’s a festering wound under that flesh-colored piece of tape. Nor is it pushing any envelopes to anchor your themes to the double-edged cliché, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet/you can’t polish a turd. Whitehead makes a go of tackling large, complex ideas about race in America, but it’s been done better in the past, both by others and by him.
Yet I have trouble being completely negative about this novel. Despite the flaws here and his other books, I nevertheless like all of them. Whitehead knows how to make prose jump and wail, and he always spins his plots and themes in unique ways, which is more than can be said for many other writers. I feel about Apex the way I feel when my favorite band puts out a less-than-stellar album. Even flawed, it’s better than much of the dreck out there. My disappointment in the novel is due in large part to my high standards for Whitehead in particular. The result is a book I can’t help but simultaneously complain about and recommend. If you've never read Whitehead before, start with The Intuitionist. If you crave more after that, come over to Apex.