Apex Hides the Hurt

I’ve been a fan of Colson Whitehead since I read his debut novel The Intuitionist several years ago. I recently listened his 2006 novel Apex Hides the Hurt across several car trips and long walks, and my esteem for his writing has grown.

The unnamed protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is a “nomenclature consultant,” a person who thinks up names for products. He is sent to a California town to mediate a dispute between two factions over whether the town should keep its current name, Winthrop, or adopt a faux forward-looking one, New Prospera. The town, originally founded by emancipated slaves, began its life with the name Freedom, though another name had been suggested. This being a Colson Whitehead novel, racial issues in contemporary America are never far below the surface.

Indeed, just as the plantation master would give names to his slaves as a way to demean and control them, the power of names and just who may bestow them is the central theme of this novel. Litanies of product names the protagonist has come up with appear throughout the novel. “Apex” is the name of an adhesive bandage that is marketed in different hues to match the wearer’s skin color exactly. It “hides the hurt.” The protagonist uses an Apex bandage for a toe injury he sustains during his tenure with a nomenclature firm. The bandage works so well that he is unaware of the putrefying decay of his damaged toe until he must have it amputated. Sometimes the hurt should not be hidden away, a discovery the protagonist makes when he chooses the new name for the town.

Plantation masters would sometimes partially cripple runaway slaves who had been captured and brought back so they couldn’t run off again. The protagonist sustains his foot injury while working for the consulting firm, yet he leaves as a result and becomes a free lance. In a way, he is emancipated as well.

In many ways this novel reminded me of Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise, which also dealt in part with the naming of a town by a group of emancipated slaves.

Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist, was about the world of elevator inspectors, and every time I get in an elevator, I think of his work. Now I’m sure that I will think of him every time I use an adhesive bandage. This is a kind of guerilla marketing that is clever and long-lasting.

Colson Whitehead’s next novel, Sag Harbor, which is due out in 2009, is definitely going to be on my reading list.

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