Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead is a darkly comic novel about a nomenclature consultant, that is a man who is called upon to come up with brand names for product. As the novel begins the protagonist, sideline from his lucrative corporate job by a mysterious toe injury, is called upon by the town council of Winthrop to help rename the town. Lucky Aberdeen, a software exec who speaks in corporate clinches and technobabble, wants to give the town the forward-looking name of New Prospera. Regina Goode, mayor and descendant of the towns original black settlers wants to revert to the name given to the town by it the freed slaves who founded the town, Freedom. Albie Winthrop represents the old money and is perfectly content with keeping his family’s name on the town. Over several days spent in Winthrop observing the consumerist culture suck the soul out of the town, the nomenclature consultant struggles with playing off these interested parties and his own skill at naming.
The title of the book comes from Apex adhesive bandages, a competitor to Band-Aid which rises to prominence after the producers start making them available in every skin tone of humankind. The protagonist gives the product his best name to the product and the marketers come up with the slogan “Apex Hides the Hurt.” It doesn’t take a PhD in literary criticism to see the symbolism of bandages that hide the wound. The lead character literally loses a toe because the bandages prevent him from seeing the wound festering and decaying. His inner pain is also covered by the unhealing bandage of consumer culture.
The significance of naming is also an important symbol. The power of names, and more so the power to give name are both very important. One could write a whole book about the topic, and Colson Whitehead has. In one of the great literary tricks, Whitehead gives us a man who creates names without giving that man a name himself. I enjoyed this book which was both funny and sad, often at the same time.
On the rare occasions that he entered libraries, he always felt assured of his virtue. If they figured out how to distill the 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 (p. 91-92).
Some people went for driftwood, others were suckers for cellar door, but as far as commonplace word units went, he had always been rather fond of shuttle bus, and back in his office days had spend many an afternoon advocating its case.
As perfect containers of that moment between anticipation and event, as roving four-wheeled or six-wheeled conveyances of hope, shuttle buses cannot be blamed if the destination disappoints, if desire is counterfeited, if after all that dreaming all we have to show are ashed. Shuttle buses, at worst, were unwitting accomplices. Being a shuttle bus, he argued, mean never having to say you’re sorry. He always expected applause when he finished (p. 101).