Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides the Hurt

Doubleday, $22.95 (cloth)


 A job, in Colson Whitehead’s narrative universe, is never just a job: it is the prospecting tool the author uses to prise open the seams of identity, culture, and race that so tenuously hold together his protagonists’ insulated worlds. Historically, jobs have been identity straitjackets for African-Americans, and Whitehead reminds us that the culture of work is a nexus for society’s hierarchies and values. His characters’ occupations allow Whitehead to investigate—in an often sardonic, gumshoe style—our culture’s preoccupations with race, history, and memory.

Whitehead’s impressive 1999 debut, The Intuitionist, an allegorical fantasy, established Whitehead as a writer with a most idiosyncratic vision. The Intuitionist depicts Lila Mae, an elevator inspector with visions. As she investigates an elevator accident, she must negotiate the politics of two opposing schools of thought within the Department of Elevator Inspectors: the Empiricists, who inspect by observation, and the Intuitionists, who inspect by extrasensory perception. Lila Mae is a master Intuitionist, and she also happens to be the first Black and female elevator inspector. And adding to her isolation, she lives far from family. Lila Mae ends up pursuing the Intuitionists’ Holy Grail: philosophical notebooks written by their founder, James Fulton, that offer a deep metaphorical vision for racial and social identity. As elevators rise, Fulton suggests, so too must the evolutionary imperatives of humanity to transcend sensory limits—what Lila Mae calls “white people’s reality,” represented by the Empiricists—and the fraudulent social reality that it has spawned. Lila Mae’s extraordinary talents in Intuitionism suggest that the Black social experience may be uniquely qualified to forge this neo-mystical world.

The novel works its thematic magic by locating racial perspectives and ideas in a seemingly familiar, benign environment—mid-century America and elevators—where they have an almost science-fiction allure. The reader becomes palpably aware of just how constructed these iconic American images and tropes are, made familiar because of the white faces and dominating white perspective behind the illusion in, ironically, a black-and-white, noir, exceedingly “empirical” world. The novel often has the imaginative quality of hindsight’s stark clarity, like the Star Trek episode (from the original series, of course) where the crew travels back in time to 20th-century America, trying to fit into contemporary mores and technology as they execute their mission.

Because noir can’t easily accommodate subtle characterization and emotion, Lila Mae’s detachment is forgivable. Still, noir does work, beyond survival and suspense, with lust and sexual attraction, and Lila Mae and Natchez, Fulton’s nephew, might have taken some time out from their cogitations to humanize an otherwise densely thematic story.

The central metaphors of Whitehead’s novels work best when they are atypical, freeing the author from the trap of an excessive seriousness—which he often humorously derides, but from which his second novel regrettably suffers. John Henry Days is a more traditional narrative, and that may be its biggest flaw. J. Sutter, the protagonist, is a junketeer journalist who, in the course of trying to set a marathon event record, ends up covering a celebration of John Henry in the steel driver’s purported hometown in Virginia. The storyline parallels John Henry’s famous steel-driving contest: pitted against a steel-driving machine to see which one can perform faster, John Henry wins but dies after doing so. It is hard to tell, however, if Whitehead intends the comparison to ennoble J. or to mock him, mostly because J.’s endeavor is so very meaningless, a parody of the superficial media. Many critics overlooked this problem with the novel, since they were so enamored of Whitehead’s ability to capture this mostly white media culture so well, relishing the in-joke. While John Henry’s contest has its absurdities too, they are not of his making or under his control. His survival and his family’s depend on his performance, and the dire complexities of his world far overbalance the ephemeral, trivial subtleties of J.’s bogus receipts and mooching. It is not the contest or masculinity that is the vital metaphor of this folk tale; it is John Henry’s Black body itself, its use and misuse, and the historical and social resonances it holds in the American consciousness. Whitehead’s Sutter does not and cannot begin to address these themes.

Instead, Whitehead seems more interested in documenting rather than elucidating the almost messianic fascination with the John Henry legend, in particular among generations of African-Americans. Chapters jump back and forth in time, relating different characters’ experiences with the John Henry story through song, characters that include a blues singer, a folk anthropologist, J. Sutter, and John Henry himself. These layered digressions were intended, I suppose, to gather momentum like a locomotive, or to mirror John Henry’s climactic win before his collapse, but they become ponderous, relegating the folk tale’s power to nostalgia. Yet the storyline of Pamela, the daughter of a man who became obsessed with John Henry memorabilia and was emotionally abandoned his family, is compelling. Although Pamela too suffers, as Lila Mae does, from an emotional deficit, Whitehead’s portrayal of a Black character with a negative association to John Henry begins to probe the acute African-American need for self-affirmation and transcendence in a dehumanizing reality. It is no wonder, then, that one of the rare emotionally evocative moments in Whitehead’s writing occurs when Pamela and J. bury Pamela’s father’s ashes in an abandoned cemetery where the bodies of Black railroad workers—probably killed violently, either by the inherent dangers of their job or by the racist whites they worked for and beside—are buried.

After the epic heft of John Henry Days, Whitehead’s new novel is a bracingly spare satiric fable, accomplishing much of the ambition of the previous book in less time and space and to much greater effect. Apex Hides the Hurt follows the career of a pointedly unnamed nomenclature consultant, a narrative twin to J. Sutter, in the midst of—what else?—an identity crisis, a perfect ignition for this worthy, inventive, but ultimately unsatisfying tale. The novel’s protagonist conjures up perfect names for the steady stream of new products and drugs in an American landscape clotted with brand names and megastore-sized consumption. The protagonist stumbles into this career with “a Midtown job”, with all the apathy and nonchalance of today’s unmoored post-college 20-somethings. But he quickly discovers that he has an aptitude, a hidden “territory within himself and [he] would bring back specimens . . . most excellent dispatches . . . His names,” a lucrative position for a gifted appellationist. His success affords him big-city, high-powered, high-rise, airless existence with no obvious connections to family or community beyond his professional colleagues. His girlfriends are interchangeable, regularly replaced and afforded no other characterization beyond their first names, which his colleagues understand need not be remembered. (Whitehead may be one of our generation’s most interesting writers, but he is also arguably one of our most unsexy; alienated characters equal arid sex.)

The consultant’s work, naturally, has become his life, and he brands every involvement and tags each person that crosses his path, frequently to great comic and insightful effect. Even a casual encounter with a passing construction worker is an opportune moment for comment: A door in the fence scraped inward, revealing a scruffy young white dude whose ingrown posture, rumpled clothes and shallow expression marked a life of few prospects, and fewer misgivings about the lack of said prospects. An existence lived in the safety and hospitality of that protected nature preserve called the American Middle Class. The name Skip was embroidered over the left breast of his mechanic’s shirt, which meant in all probability his name was not Skip. Not Skip awkwardly steered a dolly onto the sidewalk, grunting. He informed Not Skip that he was looking for the library.

While the quick, wry summations are infectious, the tragedy is that the consultant’s talents only serve to diminish the world and the language. In Ursula K. LeGuin’s seminal Earthsea trilogy, naming, in homage to indigenous and mystical traditions, is the magician’s purvue and, at its best, is a song of love to life itself. In Apex Hides the Hurt, the word magicians are all in the employ of corporations, and, in this context, naming trumps actual experience with a vacuous image of that experience.

Like Whitehead’s other protagonists, the consultant lives in a privileged cocoon, where he believes his talents and intelligence speak for themselves. This inordinate pride, nurtured by an elite brand-name education and a sizable dose of irony and disdain, elevate him beyond even the possibility of racial indignity or ethical concern, and, in turn, the need to ever make a decision, or take action in the face of offense. In fact, any racial recognition, casual, historical, or otherwise, is immediately inoculated in mocking send-up. Even the disclosure of consultant’s own race as African-American is incidental. One of the hilarious dramatizations of this defense is the run-ins with a nameless, faceless maid, who most likely is the wife of the hotel’s surly Black bartender, and whom he prevents from entering his room, his inner sanctum, during a business trip. Each day of his stay she bangs on his hotel door, demanding entry in order to fulfill her cleaning duties. She periodically slides angry notes under the door: “You THINK you are so smart, smartypants. But you ARE NOT.”

* * *

The main storyline takes place in the Midwestern town of Winthrop, where the consultant lands a freelance gig, having left his high-profile position “at the top of his game” after an unexplained misfortune. The three-person town council needs his discerning skills in settling a dispute over renaming their town. A white homegrown high-tech millionaire and a co-opted ex-hippie cum New Ager, Lucky Aberdeen, initiated the campaign to rename the town “New Prospera” to reflect his vision of reinvigorating the local economy with corporate investment and capitalist incentives. The Black mayor, Regina Goode, in a sudden break with her ally, Lucky, wants the town returned to its original name, Freedom; half the town’s streets are named after her ancestors—the free Black settlers who fled the treacherous Reconstruction South and founded the town. Finally, there’s Albie Winthrop, as addled as a post-traumatic vet by his nostalgia for white male paternalism and submissive ex-wives as the plight of Blacks and the have-nots. A descendant of the white man for whom not only the town was named but most institutions and landmarks. Albie, of course, lobbies for the name to remain the same.

Unfortunately, these names inspire neither the consultant nor the reader, and the narrative begins to sputter. As the consultant weighs each choice, researching the town’s history, suffering each council member’s arguments, his downfall begins to unfold. The turning point is his most successful professional accomplishment, the pride before the fall, the source of his malaise: the re-branding of a sixth-rate bandage company as Apex and its updated product, a multicultural disposable bandage that matches every flesh tone; it absolutely “hides the hurt.”

It is an ingenious image, with a wink to the ubiquitous Acme brand in the 1940s and 1950s Looney Tunes and the burgeoning of modern advertising that those cartoons slyly parodied. The consultant sums up the synonymous brands, Apex and Acme, best: “We try to give you a taste of your unattainable selves. Keeps you docile.” Indeed, the Apex bandage ad perfectly alludes to the pacifying false promises of corporate brands, in this extreme case by equating superficial paper cuts with the collective wounds of historical oppression (as well as intimating how social movements, such as multiculturalism, are often elaborately dressed-up, high-minded brand names).

Immediately after his crowning achievement, the consultant suffers an inexplicable “misfortune”: a phantom limp, with emotional disaffection to match. However, neither he nor the story clarifies the correlation between the Apex campaign and his sudden reversal of fortune. Why should this particular racialized situation bother him more than any other? The ad campaign becomes something of an inkblot, a racial aptitude test, which will encourage some readers to connect the consultant’s misfortunes to personal identity struggles and others to connect it to collective racial trauma.

For three quarters of the book, Apex Hides The Hurt is something of a satiric masterpiece—an invigorating and astounding feat, more so because of the simple plot around which everything orbits. Whitehead’s lean, resonant prose moves at a crisp, efficient clip and goes down as easily as Lucky Aberdeen’s favorite Brio energy drink—a language perfectly suited to the consultant’s generic quality of life, despite his assertion that naming cultivates meaning in modern consumer culture. With their wise historical elements and sparse writing, many of the novel’s scenes are reminiscent of the early novels and short stories of Kurt Vonnegut, a pioneer heckler of mid-century Madison Avenue culture, as in a passage where the consultant attends a work retreat in the country: At first it [the country] was quiet. Such was his frame of reference that he likened it to the deep silence that follows when a refrigerator stops humming . . . He heard the words of the woods. Animals, insects, small branches disturbed by unseen creatures. The more he listened, the deeper he tumbled into the noise. For a few minutes he allowed himself to be swayed by the sales pitch of nature. He ticked off a list of attributes . . . That frog would not be removed from the shelves and discontinued if it flopped. That pollen was not suddenly hip because it had been seen on the carapace of a celebrity insect. How pure it all was. Then he cursed himself. Nature is a strong brand name. Everybody knew that. First thing, Nomenclature 101. Slap Natural on the package, you were golden . . . He heard the shouting of men. They cried, “I am an original hunter! I am an original hunter!” Probably they were wearing loincloths. It was a wonder any work got done at all [with] the extent of their issues. Certainly this retreat was no escape.

The onset of the consultant’s psychological lethargy signals the paradoxical inability of the prose to express the troubled, emotional runaway he has become. Whitehead seems to recognize this dilemma as the final sections devolve into “limp” transitory musings that don’t work—not because they fail to provide resolution, but because they lack a satisfying acknowledgment of the problem itself. These ruminations are meant to convey the consultant’s haunting uncertainty and disillusionment but instead feel as if Whitehead is searching for ways to expand the language to dramatize deeper concerns. Anyway, in tag-line reality, there truly is not enough space or time even to just begin.

Whitehead brings together his protagonist’s productive past and his wounded present with a short philosophizing interlude about the names given to his race, sidestepping racial slurs, save the obvious n-word. Moving forward in time from “colored” to modern ethnic specificity, then back to the New World original, “slave”: job–identity–product, all in one. This tentative meditation, coupled with a surprising 11th-hour re-naming choice for the town, does not completely succeed at a narrative level and in the end leaves a bitter taste in the mouth.

In this flurry of Afro-naming, the protagonist, and Whitehead too, leaves out one name: Black, the 1960s tag that spearheaded the dismantling of Jim Crow and the beginning of racial equity in America. It is a curious and telling omission, since the novel is an attempt to rip the bandage off “the hurt”—to tell the truth. Black is the lone label that points to what all of Whitehead’s protagonists are working so damned hard for despite their professional accomplishments—even John Henry was at the top of his game—and the economic parity they’ve attained with their white counterparts; it is the one that comes closest to the heart of racial signifying: color, specifically this color, and the attendant collective decision, born of history, sustained by the exigencies of commerce, to devalue, degrade, de-name, and withhold acceptance, respect, and, most importantly, love.