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The Name Game

Apex Hides the Hurt

By Colson Whitehead

(Doubleday, 212 pp., $22.95)

Colson Whitehead is concerned with in-between states. "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 asks in his new novel. In his view, the solution to such an ambiguity lies in a name. The state of semi-irritated, mouth-watering expectancy, the protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt decides, should be called "Tantalasia." Names in this novel are the grounding forces of unmoored elements, aligning things in a correct configuration.

"Tantalasia" is one of the novel's better coinages. The protagonist of Apex is a "nomenclature consultant" who makes a living condensing sensations into syllables, ensuring the success of a company's product by giving it a name that enhances its appeal. Although it is fairly simple to avoid a name that immediately gives offense--say, product names that become swear words when translated into other languages--appeal is a more complex phenomenon. A name intended to represent the properties of an object might express only a subjective experience of it. What suits one person might displease another.

But Apex is not a novel about marketing. Its real subject is the large-scale implications of the seemingly small-scale choices that are made in speech, especially speech that relates to race. The plot deals with a controversy surrounding the re-naming of a small town called Winthrop. Lucky Aberdeen, CEO and founder of Aberdeen software, spearheads the move to change the town's name, preferring "New Prospera" for obvious reasons. Albert (Albie) Winthrop, a descendant of the original Winthrop, resists the change. Regina Goode, the black mayor of the town, and a descendant of its first inhabitants (former slaves who migrated north from Georgia after the Civil War), wants to restore the town's original name, "Freedom." The nomenclature consultant has been brought in to try to create some sort of consensus of language and meaning in this racially fraught situation.

These characters are distanced from one another not only by their differing races, but also by thoughtless everyday speech. "Do you think Charred and Feathered would be a good name for a chicken joint?" Lucky asks the black protagonist. "Like a nationwide chain, big sign: Charred and Feathered. Mascot and everything." Even when confronted with less immediately insulting speech, the nomenclature consultant, who has meshed successfully with the overwhelmingly white world of corporate consulting, finds himself alienated from other races by certain modes of speech: "Truth be told, most of the time he didn't know what white people were talking about.... The words they used were strange, odd souvenirs, tiny fragments that had been chipped off an alien business meteorite. This was language from outer space." He "shivered each time Gertrude [a harmless librarian] used the word colored. He kept stubbing his toe on it.... Before colored, slave. Before slave, free. And always somewhere, nigger." He generally believes that the evolution of language advances a more humane mentality--"Negro" is better than "colored"; "Afro-American," or later, "African American," better than their antecedents; but he doubts anyone's ability adequately to use language in the representation of race. These iterations only "inch closer to the truth.... As if that thing we believed to be approaching actually existed."

Such metaphysical musings indicate that the complications of naming are not ignored by the novel. Whitehead acknowledges that the linguistic techniques of marketing will avail us little in the realm of history and identity. But Apex creates the expectation that Whitehead--an admired African American writer--will demonstrate some special competence, some genuine eloquence, on the subject of race and language. Why read a novel that recognizes the linguistic complications of a social issue, if not to be enlightened about a way around these complications?

But in this regard Apex consistently disappoints. The conflict in the novel is so starkly and simplistically drawn that it almost immediately assumes a dry allegorical tenor, reducing the people in the book to a kind of shorthand for cultural and historical forces. Whitehead's people are never quite individuals. More often they are occasions for the writer tiresomely to exercise his wit. A minor character is described as a "scruffy young white dude whose wrecked posture, rumpled clothes, and shallow expression marked a life of few prospects, and fewer misgivings about the lack of said prospects.... The name Skip was embroidered over the left breast of his striped mechanic's shirt, which meant in all probability his name was not Skip. Not Skip awkwardly steered a dolly onto the sidewalk." Denied even a name, "Not Skip" is the most drastic illustration of Whitehead's reluctance to flesh out his characters. The central figures at least have names, but they too are caricatures: Lucky is a confident, new-age entrepreneur; Albie is the withered remains of old money, still clinging to his decaying mansion; Regina is the righteous and over-achieving minority, come to make good in her hometown. As for the book's protagonist, he does not have a name. The nomenclature consultant lacks nomenclature. I am not sure what the purpose of his anonymity is, but it leaves a wounding cloud of portentousness over his head.

Even the protagonist--who, unlike the other characters, does not fall into a stereotyped mold--fails as a means to "inch closer" to a right way of speaking about race. At first he seems different, someone with at least the promise of a richer inner life--the discovery of his creativity, he reflects, was like the discovery of "a magnificent and secret landscape. His interior." But, as the triteness of those words indicates, rarely has an allegedly glimmering intellect appeared in a more lackluster form. Near the beginning of the book, upon arriving in Winthrop, he observes: "The best thing about the suburbs were the garages"; "He loved supermarkets"; "A neat little main drag, he thought." As the novel progresses, the prose becomes even more cliched. (He gets the big case "because he was at the top of his game," he remains single because he "hadn't met that special someone.") Or it sounds merely empty ("his new apartment was great," "there is within, and there is without").

The spiritless prose of the protagonist enacts the argument that emerges as the central thrust of the novel: that the authority of eloquence is specious, that no one person is more entitled (or able) to name a town, or a race, or a human, than any other person. I suppose that is why Whitehead traps his supposedly brilliant wordsmith in a swamp of vapid contemporary idiom. But this has the effect of dulling his novel, of exposing a hollowness at the heart of its cleverness. "A name that got to the heart of the thing," the protagonist muses, "that would be miraculous." But there are no miracles here; not even the hope of one.

Whitehead has been both commended and criticized for the effusiveness of his writing. In these pages James Wood called the prose of his second novel, John Henry Days, "swaggering when it should be controlled, fruitlessly dense, grossly abundant," indulging in a "a squabble of excess." There is no "squabble of excess" in Apex, and in some places Whitehead's now more controlled method of abundance has yielded interesting and thoughtful results. He can be descriptively ingenious. In the storefront of Winthrop's more desolate businesses, "dead flies littered the bottom of the ancient window displays, out of reach of arthritic hands." And he can render the emotional implications of observed things: "on Saturdays he put on his old college sweatshirt and hunkered over the papers he had to get through by Monday a.m., as if putting on sweats could take the sting out of working on the weekend." The appeal of the suburban Mexican restaurant "belong[s] to that robust tradition of lone ethnic restaurants in the middle of nowhere, beloved by the natives in direct proportion to the lack of competition. The chips were greasy and delicious, and the promised margaritas of a firm, sandpaper variety that smoothed the bristled edges of the brain." But such literary inventiveness is not enough to redeem the book. It is fine to empty convention of significance, but this novel empties language as well. Apex is not only about the anomie of its protagonist, it is also an exemplification of it. It is a casualty of the empty world that it invents.