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May 18, 2006

'Apex Hides The Hurt' — by Colson Whitehead


Everything Whitehead touches turns to originality.

He's that pure and gifted a writer.

The first couple paragraphs of his debut novel, "The Intuitionist," grabbed me and didn't ever let go until I'd finished the book.

It was so strangely different from whatever else is out there masquerading as original fiction.

Whitehead is the real deal.

"Apex Hides The Hurt" is the story of a nomenclature consultant, a man whose rare talent is finding just the name to set a product soaring into the stratospheric heights of the economy and the collective needful unconscious.

As a connoisseur of words and names — both the right and the wrong — I was in heaven from the get-go.

    From the book:

    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?

    Those were good times. In the office they greeted each other with Hey and Hey, man and slapped each other on the back a lot. In the coffee room they threw the names around like weekenders tossing softballs. Clunker names fell with a thud on the ground. Hey, what do you think of this one? They brainstormed, bullshitted, performed assorted chicanery, and then sometimes they hit one out of the park. Sometimes they broke through to the other side and came up with something so spectacular and unexpected, so appropriate to the particular thing waiting, that the others could only stand in awe. You joined the hall of legends.

    Sometimes he came up with a name that didn't fit the client but would one day be perfect for something else, and these he kept away from the world, reassuring them over the long years, his lovely homely daughters. When their princes arrived it was a glorious occasion. A good name did not dry up and get old. It waited for its intended.

    He was watching an old black-and-white movie on the television, the kind of flick where nothing happened unless it happened to strings. Every facial twitch had its own score. Every smile ate up two and a half pages of sheet music. Every little thing walked around with this heavy freight of meaning. In his job, which was his past present and future job even though he had suffered a misfortune, he generally tried to make things more compact. Squeeze down the salient qualities into a convenient package. A smile was shorthand for a bunch of emotion. And here in this old movie they didn't trust that you would know the meaning of a smile so they had to get an orchestra.

    He loved supermarkets. In supermarkets, all the names were crammed into their little seats, on top of each other, awaiting their final destinations.

    He said to himself: Bottle a certain musty essence and call it Old Venerable. Spray it around the house and your humble abode might smell like the Winthrop Suite of the Hotel Winthrop. The man at registration had told him that President So-and-so had slept there, one of those presidents that nobody has ever heard of, or everybody always forgot was a president at some point. Board of Ed types were always a bit dismayed when they needed to name a new high school and realized that all the favorite workhorses were taken, and were forced down the list to the sundry Pierces and Fillmores. As he looked around the room, he had to admit that it was quite possible that one of those so-and-so presidents had stayed there, after a listless stump speech. It was a good place to make a bad decision, and in particular, a bad decision that would affect a great many people.

    He landed Apex because he was at the top of his game. The bosses would call him into their office to chat, to reassure themselves, to count the lines on his brow as they ran an idea up the flagpole. One day he stifled a burp and his pursed lips put an end to Casual Fridays. The other folks in nomenclature came to him with their problems, they bought him cocktails and he offered obvious solutions to dilemmas. He wasn't exactly taxing his brain. He didn't squander names that could have been used for his projects. What he gave them were slacker names. He lent out malingerers.

    He attracted clients through word of mouth. Some clients he passed off on younger, hungrier colleagues and e-mailed apologies. He was all booked up. His generosity increased his estimation in the eyes of the lower ranks and his exclusivity won him still more clients. With the assignments he did take, he was getting faster and faster with his naming. He wasn't at the point where he could just look at something and know its name, but the answer generally came quickly and he had to sit on the name for couple of days and pretend to ponder long and hard, or else he'd look superhuman.

    Market research bore out his impressions. The only people who used the product lived in small hamlets where everybody believed Truman was still the president; on visiting their homesteads the mailman shoved in pitches for land deals in Florida and sweepstakes guarantees and little else. Mummies that they were, they didn't need Dr. Chickie's Adhesive Strips anyway. What was there to sop? What they needed were brooms, to sweep up the dust that fell out of the nicks in their bodies. These people were not the kind you tried to seduce through advertisements in tony magazines.

    "Peep This" swaggered from the jukebox, and people shrieked as they recognized the opening sample. Every couple of years a hip-hop song invaded the culture with such holy fervor that it revealed itself to be a passkey to universal psyche, perfectly naming some national characteristic or diagnosing some common spiritual ailment. You heard the song every damned place, in the hippest underground grottoes and at the squarest weddings, and no one remained seated. "Peep This" possessed exactly such uncanny powers, and in the way of such things completely killed off a few choice slang words through overexposure. When grannies peeped this or peeped that from the windows of their retirement-home community aeries, it was time for the neologists to return to their laboratories.

    Just a few bars into "Peep This" and leis were bouncing off the ceiling. That sublime and imperative bass line, he told himself. Truth be told, like everyone else, he loved "Peep This." It had taken months of brief exposure at the corner bodega before he realized that the song had attached itself to his nervous system. He was more or less powerless against it, a blinking automaton.

    Isn't it great when you're a kid and the whole world is full of anonymous things? Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it. All those flying gliding things are just birds. Once we knew the name of it, how could we ever come to love it? He told himself: What he had given to all those things had been the right name, but never the true name. For things had true natures, and they hid behind false names, beneath the skin we gave them.

    A name that got to the heart of the thing — that would be miraculous. But he never got to the heart of the thing. What is the word, he asked himself, for that elusive thing? It was on the tip of his tongue. What is the name for that which is always beyond our grasp? What do you call that which escapes?

    He adjusted quickly to the recluse lifestyle, which was much more complicated than it appeared to outsiders, who enjoyed their invigorating jaunts outdoors and frequent social interaction without considering the underlying structures holding everything together. Keeping away from people, that was easy. Neglecting one's physical appearance, that wasn't too difficult either. The hard part was accepting that the world did not miss you.

May 18, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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"The hard part was accepting that the world did not miss you". Why do we feel that when we retreat into ourselves that we will be hurting someone or something? When,in reality the only one that gets hurt is the person that retreated in the first place? The "world" will not miss what it doesn't know.

Posted by: Rhonda | May 19, 2006 8:41:42 AM

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