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Apex Hides the Hurt
Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl
Colson Whitehead has a way with language, whether he is writing it or satirizing its flaws, ambiguities and terrors. Whitehead's fiction is also just plain weird and very, very effective. In this fourth novel, the protagonist -we surmise eventually an African American male - is called into help give an old racist, southern town a new name. Why is he called? Well, for a number of human and conflicted reasons. He is what the advertising industry dubs a "nomenclature consultant, " and a very successful one.
Our hero - or whatever you want to call him since his name is never revealed - is fresh from a major triumphant of naming. He has created "Apex" the multicultural bandage. "The school nurses of integrated elementariness could order special jumbo variety packs, crayon boxes of the melanin spectrum to serve diversity. Even he had to admire the wonder of it all. The great rainbow of our skins....Criminoy--an alien square of white on the skin, well that was outside the pale of even the albinoest albino. The deep psychic wounds of history and the more recent gashes ripped by the present, all of these could be covered by this wonderful unnamed multicultural adhesive bandage." (89-90).
As the days pass, our hero explores the history of the town named Winthrop, which he is to rename. This means also untangling the parallel histories of the black and white communities who have lived there over the decades. In the black narrative he notes that there "must have been constant concerns for the settlers--where to bunk down, how much to interact with white communities--as well as one particular issue of singular vexation that was timeless, whether it was the 1860's or the 1960s: how to keep white folks from killing you." (142).
The book contains a brief meditation on the evolution of words used to describe black skin. "A thing or a person, it didn't matter-- the name you gave it allowed you to draw a bead, take aim, shot. But there was a flip side of calling something by the name you gave it--and that was wanting to be called by the name that you gave yourself. What is the name that will give me dignity and respect that is my right? The key that will unlock the world." (192)
Characters in the books represent a mixture of the black and white ancestors of the town and the wry commentary of the outsider nomenclature expert provides enough satire on both groups to keep the reader laughing --and thinking.
The entire novel is a spectacular gaming with the core issues of language and human identity. Who are we? What's in a name? What is relationality (and how rational is that?)?
In one of the passages on naming, our hero wistfully reflects on his vocation and the mystery of it all: "Isn't it great when you're a kid and the whole world is full of anonymous things....Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it. All those flying, gliding things are just birds....What had he given to all those things had been the right names, but never the true name. For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, beneath the skin we gave them." ( 182)
Colson Whitehead. I have his other three books on my "must read" summer list. I note as well that the New York Times Book Review has recently said excellent things of him as well.
Read this author and you'll be drawn into his spoofs--and his deep seriousness.