Like Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, Colson Whitehead doesn't see "blackness" as the existential crisis to be overcome by many Americans—it is simply one in a series of related crises: those that are acted out each day in the arena of a vast, articulate culture that wants to define people, regardless of race, gender, or ability, before they have a chance to define themselves. In other words, identity isn't a matter of pigmentation, but of perception—as in how keenly you read (or misread) others. And how keenly they read (or misread) you.
Whitehead's characters suffer from a sort of social dyslexia. Unable to make sense of the world around them, they often stop trying. They work at dead-end jobs for large, faceless corporations, establish few (if any) lasting relationships, and waste their days haunting anonymous urban landscapes and franchise-hotel restaurants, pondering the essential meaninglessness of elevators, postage stamps, and brand names. Even their professional skills don't make them happy, but only increase their feelings of isolation, alienation, and regret.
In The Intuitionist, for example, Lila Mae Watson can "sense," like some Industrial Age machine whisperer, when an elevator may not actually go up and down as scheduled. And in John Henry Days, freelance hack J. Sutter makes a precarious living going on press junkets, collecting other people's reimbursable expense receipts, and producing decent ad copy that looks like bad journalism (or bad journalism that looks like decent ad copy—he's not entirely sure).
The protagonist of Whitehead's third novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, is a hot young "nomenclature consultant" (purposely left unnamed) who possesses a knack for signification. When clients need to launch (or relaunch) a commercial product, they hire him to slap on the only thing that matters—a shiny new brand name. Sometimes, the stuff they're touting is medicinal: Drowsatin, say, for sleeping your cares away, or StaySlim for those who, well, you know, can't. Other times, it's recreational, such as Brio, the energy drink for people who stay up late staring at computers, or Outfit Outlet and Admiral Java, two of those omnipresent mall stops where lonely consumers go to share in the communal experience of buying.
But whether they come in the form of an ointment, a gel, or a latte, it's not the products themselves but only their brightly labeled packages that seem to relieve people of their pain. Which is probably why the man with the naming touch doesn't think of himself as a salesman—he considers himself more an oracle or a prophet:
It was the kind of business where there were a lot of Eureka stories. Much of the work went on in the subconscious level. He was making connections between things without thinking and then, bam on the subway scratching a nose, or bam bam while stubbing a toe on the curb. Floating in neon before him was the name. When the products flopped, he told himself it was because of the marketing people. It was the stupid public. The crap-ass thing itself. Never the name because what he did was perfect.
For the protagonist, names are a primordial spiritual substance that fills in the cracks and imperfections of everyday life and makes all those overhyped products staring down from supermarket shelves seem ripe, luminous, and even desirable. In other words, in a world filled with junk, people have learned to prefer covers to books, images to reality. Don't wrestle with truth—just hum the jingle.
Like Whitehead's previous novels, Apex makes it clear from the start that Serious Metaphors are at work within its pages. First, of course, there's the "multicultural bandage" designed to "hide the hurt" when actual life cuts too close. Available in a wide variety of hues, "Apex-brand" bandages (as in "the best of civilization, and of course something you could tumble off of, fall fast") reassure people that they're all "flesh-colored," whatever color they happen to be. After all, a splinter is bad enough—you don't need the injury compounded by a sense of difference. In Whitehead's world, everybody is "colored"—by skin, perceptions, talents, whatever.
Then there's the iconographic history of Winthrop, a moderate-size Midwestern town where the protagonist is called in to preside over a renaming contest. Originally called Freedom by its black founders, it was later rechristened by the Winthrop family, after they established their barbed-wire factory (good for keeping some people in and other people out), and now it stands poised to rename itself one more time—either by reverting to its "original" name (as advocated by the black female mayor) or by embracing something high-tech and altogether forward-looking. For example, how does New Prospera grab you? Clearly, Whitehead's argument is that history and identity are constantly being written, and then written again.
The reigning metaphor of Apex, however, is the protagonist's stubbed, and now permanently injured, toe. ("In retrospect there was some inevitability tied up in said stubbing, so he came to believe that his toe wanted to be stubbed for reasons that were unknowable. Unnamable.") Our onomastic specialist tries to keep his secret pain safe from scrutiny, only to feel the infection constantly spreading and the pus continuing to drip, drip beneath the continually reapplied bandages. Until, of course, he has the toe amputated and is left limping from the pain (or memory) that simply won't go away.
As with the founding moment of Winthrop—when the dreams of Freedom were sold out and renamed to make the world profitable for barbed wire—human life, for Whitehead, is characterized by some form of damage. When people are hurt by one another, or by history, they try to keep the pain hidden or covered over. But they can only pretend for so long. Eventually, the pain surfaces, and when it does, there's only one, barely articulate thing left to say:
In previous novels, Whitehead's prose was often uncontrolled and confusing, especially its figurative language. (The opening pages of John Henry Days are a textbook example of mixed—or even Osterized—metaphors.) But in Apex Hides the Hurt, he seems to have smoothed out his stylistic inconsistencies. Many passages are quite funny, especially those describing the ritualized think sessions and team camps of modern corporate life, where executives load their classy-looking briefcases with barbecue implements or roam through the woods in loincloths crying, "I am an original hunter! I am an original hunter!" These corporate honchos and honchettes don't do their jobs so much as perform them, even when the only audience worth impressing is themselves.
Still, the prose goes wobbly on occasion, and readers may find themselves getting lost in scenes such as the following, when the protagonist decides, after a lonely dinner in his room, to call it "cocktail hour."
Outside the bar, the lobby was busy with talk of names and how many nights, as tired pilgrims leaned at reception to deliver credit cards to the world of incidental charges. The quiet of the previous night was at an end. No more fretful scanning for the horizon; this ghost ship had found the shipping lanes again. There were six other patrons. They sipped and squeezed limes into their drinks and commented on the accommodations and the journey. Talking about details, giving them a hearing, helped tame the loss of beloved routine. Someone asked, "What time is it there?" The slang of everyday exile, of in-between places like airports and hotel bars.
The disconnected, abstract phrases make it hard to follow the simplest syntactical relationships between subject and object, or pronoun and referent. For example, who is "scanning for the horizon" in this scene? Is it the "ghost ship" or somebody looking to find it? And where did the "ghost ship" come from, anyway? Does it comprise the latest influx of residents, or is it the "ship" of commerce, or the "ship" of the mighty hotel? And while we're at it, how do you give a "hearing" to"details"? Readers may not have time to consider Whitehead's most compelling arguments; they'll be too busy trying to figure out where they are and what's happening to whom.
Whitehead writes novels of ideas—and that means his characters don't act so much as think. And once they've finished thinking, they fade away, taking most of the narrative momentum with them. In the concluding pages of Apex, we never really learn what happens to the nomenclature consultant or what decision he reaches about renaming Winthrop. Instead, he undergoes a series of half-realizations dressed up as epiphanies, until he concludes that the naming of places is never as important as the always-human struggle to speak their meaning into existence. The act of naming, Whitehead suggests, isn't any sort of lasting achievement, or a means of hammering permanence into things, people, politics, or locations on a map. Rather, it's the continually imperfect effort we all make, every day of our lives, to grant sense and significance to the world, whether the world deserves it or not. By the end of this short, intriguing, and sometimes aimless novel, it is hard to dispute an argument filled with so much intelligence and compassion; but it is equally hard to feel much concern for the nameless character who delivers it.
Scott Bradfield's most recent books, the novel Good Girl Wants It Bad (2004) and Hot Animal Love: Tales of Modern Romance (2005), are both available from Carroll and Graf.