I don't want to give too much plot away, because I love the way the novel unfolds, but here's enough to go on. A "nomenclature consultant" is hired to help a town re-name itself. This is a man who dreams up the names that brand our world - the popular pharmaceuticals, the cell phones, the toothpaste, household cleaners and video game systems. Now he's going to judge which name best suits an old town with a new look - new money and new computer-related jobs.
But the town already has a name. Gentrification and job growth are important, but what about tradition? Which leads to the question... whose tradition? Turns out, the town's current and historic name was itself a re-naming, not unlike "America" or the "West Indies". History is written by the conquerors - and the definition of "traditional" depends on where we start.
History, race, class, advertising, language, and consumer culture converge. Yet somehow this all happens in a slim, wryly funny, wonderfully readable, little miracle of a book. I am fascinated by - and so envious of - how certain writers can do so much in so little, layers of meaning packed into so few words.
Apex Hides the Hurt skewers marketing, advertising, and contemporary consumer culture. It's a commentary on the pervasiveness of marketing in our lives, and how marketing reduces everything to its demographic parts. It's about language, and how language is exploited to sell - products, ideas, people, history, anything.
The novel also plays with the contemporary penchant (or obsession) for naming every phenomena of the world around us, the kind that Urban Dictionary collects, but perhaps with a biblical reference, as a man continues to name the animals.
What do you call that terrible length of time between when you see that your food is ready and when your waitress drags her ass over to your table with it? He saw Regina emerge from the back of the restaurant. His eyes zipped to the plate sitting on the kitchen ledge. Tantalasia. Rather broad applications, Tantalasia, apart form the food thing. An emotional state, that muted area between desire and consummation. A literal territory, some patch of unnamed broken gravel between places on a map.
Apex Hides the Hurt even contains a wry send-up of libraries and librarians. A town librarian has written the official history of the town.
Winning over the town librarian for sympathetic press wasn't too much of a task, he figured. A set of leatherbound Shakespeare would do it.
Later, the narrator tries to visit the town library, only to find it has been displaced by a big-box clothing chain, a fictional version of Old Navy.
On the rare occasions that he entered libraries, he always felt assured of his virtue. If they figured out how to distill essence of library into a convenient delivery system - a piece of gum or a gelcap, for example - he would consume it eagerly, relieved to be finished with more taxing methods of virtue gratification. Helping little old ladies across the street. Giving tourists directions. Libraries. Alas there would be no warm feelings of satisfaction today. The place was a husk. The books were gone. Where he would usually be intimidated by an army of daunting spines, there were only dust-ball rinds and Dewey decimal grave markers.
Whitehead writes the hipster librarian with a perfect eye for detail. As she chats with the nomenclature consultant, he thinks, "Slimpies: Ready-to-Wear Shrugs for When You Just Don't Have It in You."
* * * *
Before the digital era and the explosion of activist creativity, before YouTube and viral marketing - and before the shelf life of taglines had been reduced to nanoseconds - there were some standard activist slogans you'd always see. The same dozen sayings would emblazon the t-shirts, bumper stickers and postcards sold at demos and folk music festivals. "I long for the day schools have a surplus and the Pentagon has to hold a bake sale" and "Why doesn't Crayola's flesh-coloured crayon come in 52 shades?". In those days, there was something called a "flesh-coloured" crayon, a pinkish-beige hue.
Now we live in an era where flesh-coloured crayons come in many shades. Our TV screens are populated by people of all colours. But is that multiculturalism promoting equality, empathy and understanding among all people? Or is the appearance of diversity merely a tool used to induce more people to buy more products? This is a central question of Apex Hides the Hurt. It's about, among other things, what I wrote about here: "you can't find inner peace in a bottle (of iced tea)".
With this brilliant little book, Colson Whitehead becomes one of My Favourite Writers.
* * * *
I've also read Whitehead's wonderful, unusual debut novel The Intuitionist, in which ideas about race and how we perceive the world converge and double-back on themselves in a world of skyscrapers and elevator inspectors. Whitehead is also the author of some of the greatest words ever written about New York City, a collection called The Colossus of New York, the cultural grandchild of E. B. White's classic Here Is New York.
I blogged about Colson Whitehead after a terrific essay of his ran in the New York Times: "I write in Brooklyn. Get over it." And I included him in a trio of Great Writers on the Great City: please go here and especially here. (New York City fans: click on that last link.)
I have not read his novels John Henry Days (2001, shortlisted for Pulitzer Prize) or Sag Harbor (2009), but I will.