Review: Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead

[Please note there are many spoilers in this review, which is more like a book report than a review, so it's better to have read the book if you intend to before reading this!]

The wordsmith strikes again. I’ve decided that one of my favourite literary experiences this year is reading the first few pages of a Colson Whitehead novel. They are varied in subject but oh so similar in tone. You breathe in time to the phrases, your shoulders relax and your brain slumps forward, into the words.

Our main character is a nomenclature consultant: he comes up with names for things. Think ad agency. Here is the opening paragraph:
“He came up with the names. They were good times. He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they’d break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed them to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?”
See what I mean?

This third offering in my series of reading and reviewing Colson Whitehead’s novels is a departure from the first two. The tone and themes are similar, but he has chosen a decidedly shorter length and a more focused study on the main character’s experience. It is at once more compact, and less dense than the first two. It is an “easier” read because of this but no less impactful. Even the cover is different: cleaner lines, bright colours and cartoonish, which belies (or covers up, or falsely names) the darker contents.

Our narrator is hired by his previous firm as a freelancer to visit a small mid-Western American town for a weekend. His task is to choose its new name. He quit his previous gig due to a “misfortune,” that we learn about as the novel unfolds, but he’s still the foremost nomenclature consultant out there and everyone knows it. Privately, “He had this suspicion that all he had inside himself now were Frankenstein names, lumbering creatures stitched together from glottal stops and sibilants, angry unspellable misfits suitable only for the monstrous.”

The town has had previous names. It was Freedom when a party of Black ex-slaves sought a new life and settled the town site. It was Winthrop soon after, when the Black founders did a deal with a powerful barbed-wire industry magnate. Now, as the barbed-wire empire wanes, a tech mogul has set up shop and wants to name the town New Prospera. The town council is dead-locked, and our hero must make a choice.

To me, this novel is about how we remember our history. By deliberately forgetting the past, or covering it over with new names, we allow old injustice to fester, infecting our current society with a sickness of racial intolerance, prejudice, social dysfunction and decay. This is not just a hurt for those who were oppressed, or erased, but also for the current “dominant” culture, as we all must live together in a community of humans, and the apex cultural idea will, in any case, change constantly, and fall into history once again. Whitehead makes this point eloquently in the text.

Apex Hides the Hurt. It is our narrator’s most lauded achievement in naming: Apex. He named a band-aid brand that markets different skin-toned bandages for people of various colours. No one ever need know you are wearing a band-aid anymore, it will never show, it is the perfect camouflage. “United in polychromatic harmony, in injury, with our individual differences respected, eventually all healed beneath Apex. Apex Hides the Hurt.” This is the novel’s grand symbol. Do we always want to Hide the Hurt? The hurt can be so cleverly disguised that the wound festers underneath until it will not be contained, and bursts open in an extravagance of pus and blood.

Naming gives an object meaning, power and definition. It can be a signifier of its true nature, but that is rare. It is usually a selling point, amplifying and changing its meaning, capturing it and giving it boundaries. Rather than true, a name is often a revision. Our narrator is not given a name, so he is not so rigidly defined for the reader. He can embody the story and can become the symbol of revision and rot. He is the Namer, the one who assigns boundaries and meaning, but he himself is mutable and subject to corruption.

For the narrator, this takes on the form of bodily corruption. A while ago he stubbed his toe, covered it with a perfect Apex bandage, and left it be. Limping, bleeding and rotting, he finds it easier to ignore it than deal with it. This leads to physical and psychical collapse, his “misfortune,” and is the reason for his retreat into isolation. That is, until he accepts the job to name the town with a complicated history.

Is naming this town his redemption? It is so much easier to Hide the Hurt The narrator feels drawn to the name New Prospera by his former boss, the town tech billionaire, the rich food and free-flowing drinks, and the bewitching wave of congeniality and progress. It’s so easy to follow the happy and drink the New Prospera Kool-Aid. (Kool-Aid…another artificial wonder with clean lines and bright colours, simple and easy, and so tasty. But it too can be used in the service of darkness.)

He is lulled. Isn’t New Prospera the Apex of a town’s purpose? Isn’t progress the best? Isn’t it just so nice to feel happy and shiny and slip through life without any resistance? Shouldn’t we put a band-aid on all the bad parts?
“Didn’t history rise to a point? Couldn’t they look down from today and survey all that had come before, all that little stuff we squinted at that was not special and so far away, and pronounce ourselves Apex?”
Remember, though, our narrator embodies the hurt. His body won’t take it and neither will his head. Pain pushes him to wake up to the real world. Perhaps the only thing that can save him is finding a truth that doesn't Hide the Hurt, one that we can all still live with if we have to. And since Naming gives power and definition, he has to pull a name from the far, far past that applies to the nature of our lives now, just as it always has. He names the town Struggle.

As I write this, I see the value in this name. So many things I learn and read about are interconnected. Hiding the Hurt is a compelling position. This parallels what I’m learning about Buddhist practice. The first Noble Truth is that suffering (dukkha) exists. Accepting this is akin to waking up to Struggle: we all must face the truth as it is. Hiding the Hurt is the greed, hatred and delusion (ignorance) that seems the easy path but leads to greater suffering. Our narrator “woke up” to suffering and the need to see it in the world.
“Apex was splendid, as far as it went. Human aspiration, the march of civilization, our hardscrabble striving…but he had to admit that Struggle got to the point with more finesse and wit. Was Struggle the highest point of human achievement? No. But it was the point past which we could not progress, and a summit in that way.
...As he fell asleep, he heard the conversations they will have. Ones that will get to the heart of this mess. The sick swollen heart of this land. They will say: I was born in Struggle. I live in Struggle and come from Struggle. I work in Struggle. We crossed the border into Struggle. Before I came to Struggle. We found ourselves in Struggle. I will never leave Struggle. I will die in Struggle.”
At the end, our narrator hopes that he may be cured of the limp and psychic pain that he’s been suffering during his existential crisis. But he isn’t cured, and I like the novel even more for its ending:
“There had been a moment a few hours ago…when he thought he might be cured. Rid of that persistent body-mind problem. That if he did something, took action, the hex might come off. The badness come undone. He thought, plainly speaking, that he’d lose the limp. Nothing as dramatic as the cripple flinging his crutches into the air before dashing himself to the floor and break dancing, but still. Something, anything.
As the weeks went on and he settled into his new life, he had to admit that actually, his foot hurt more than ever.”


Review: John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead (February 24, 2022)

Review: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead (January 14, 2022)