“He was into names so they called him. He was available so he went.” And so the ironically nameless “nomenclature consultant” who headlines Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt begins his journey to an equally nameless town. As the consultant continues his odyssey, Whitehead asks the reader that most important of questions: What is it that defines us?
Founded by freed slaves after the Civil War, the Midwestern town of Freedom was soon invaded by a white businessman who quickly changed the town name to his own – Winthrop.
More than a 100 years later, another business whiz (this time Winthrop’s prodigal son, Lucky Aberdeen) rides into town with another label: New Prospera.
To ease the deadlock between old and new, the town calls in a famous but out-of-work “nomenclature consultant,” responsible for the naming of major products and corporations. As the consultant struggles to balance the opposing forces of history and progress, the reader begins to wonder what can’t be brand-named.
The longer the consultant stays in Freedom/Winthrop/New Prospera, the more he comes to realize that all names are nothing but masks; that beyond the words we assign to things lurks something deeper and harder to pin down.
“What he had given to all those things had been the right name,” writes Whitehead, “but never the true name.
For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, behind the skin we gave them.”
In time, the consultant begins to understand that these “false names” are not really what defines a thing. Rather, we – and all things – are defined by a far truer essence.
Though dealing with an important subject in an interesting and original fashion, Whitehead too often allows his almost mind-numbing cynicism to get in the way of the story.
Even Apex’s superficially hopeful conclusion rings false, after so much pessimism for the previous 200 pages.
A promising young novelist, Whitehead displays great control of language and style as he builds up intriguingly complex characters.
Until he can get his cynical agenda out of the way of his storytelling, however, his words will never really ring true.
“Welcome to Freedom. Welcome to Winthrop. Welcome to New Prospera. Tear the old signs down, put new ones in their place – it didn’t change the character of the place, did it? It didn’t cover up history.”
Just as no name can conceal the true essence of a thing, Colson Whitehead’s cynicism cannot conceal his promise as a writer. In further publications, we may see the hints of future glory glimpsed in Apex Hides the Hurt come to beautiful fruition.
Peter Chomko may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.