Reading Challenge Redux — Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead

As the year progresses, I find I’m moving pretty slowly through my 2013 Reading Challenge: to read a new book by an author that I’d previously read a single title by.

I glance back at my list of proposed titles fairly frequently, and each time I do I have a moment of thinking, oh those books, I can’t wait to read those and then I get distracted and read something else.

That said, I do have another book to tell you about: Apex Hides the Hurt (M) by Colson Whitehead.

Here’s what you should know about Colson Whitehead. He’s the author of 5 very well received novels that have gotten nods from just about every major American prize you can think of (Pulitzer, National Book Critics Circle, PEN/Faulkner, etc).

He has a nonfiction book of essays called The Colossus of New York (M) that looks at the city of New York from perspectives you may never have considered. He has won a MacArthur Fellowship (Genius Grant) and frequently writes articles for magazines like The New Yorker, Harper’s and Granta and the New York Times.

I’ve been hearing about Whitehead as an author for awhile, but the conversation about him that I was hearing really heated up in 2011 when he released the novel Zone One (M).

Why so much buzz about Zone One? It was riding a trend: it’s a zombie novel. But it’s also a zombie novel from an author who has previously been given all sorts of critical acclaim and who is very solidly not perceived of as a genre author, and that got people talking. Oh, and it didn’t hurt any that it is a great zombie novel: both from the perspective of a genre piece and from the perspective of a literary novel. I really liked Zone One: it was creepy and frightening, people had to run away from things just like you’d expect in a horror novel, but it was also an extremely thoughtful examination of the decline of civilization.

The fact that I finally came to Whitehead’s writing from what seemed like a bit of a strange direction made me want to go back and see what another of his books would be like. Enter Apex Hides the Hurt. This slim novel (his third), is a satire that tells the story of a “nomenclature consultant”, a—unco-incidentally nameless—guy whose job it is to come up with names for things who is tasked with assisting the small town of Winthrop in their quest to find a new name. This consultant’s greatest previous achievement is the naming of a bandage brand—one whose popularity comes from the fact that it comes in a range of colours for a multiracial society. The name he came up with? Apex. And its tag line? “hides the hurt”. There are parallels between that achievement and his newest commission, which Publisher’s Weekly pointed out by saying “The “hurt” of the Apex tag line is deviously resonant, poetically invoking banal scrapes and deep-seated, historical injustice; both types of wounds are festering in the town of Winthrop, which looks like a midwestern anytown but was founded by ex-slaves migrating during Reconstruction.”

Reviews on this book were mixed. Booklist gave it a rave, saying it continued in Whitehead’s established tradition of “shrewd and playful inquiry into the American soul” while Publisher’s Weekly was lukewarm, calling the book “intriguingly conceived but static”. For me, I’d say I can see the reason for both views: the social commentary in the book is brilliant, but the story arc may leave readers who favour a more plot focused story wanting. There is plot to Apex Hides the Hurt, but it’s not a book where the plot is the key appeal. Like the last book I read a part of my reading challenge—Patrick deWitt’s Abultions—for me, Apex Hides the Hurt’s strength lies in its individual scenes, rather than in its overall story arc. Individual moments and scenes leave the reader thinking, questioning, and in many cases laughing-out-loud (Whitehead’s writing is very intelligent, but it is also often very, very funny). The book seems to unfold in equal measure through the musings of the narrator and in small absurd moments of comedy and confusion.

As seems to happen to me a lot these days, the books I like the most are the ones I have the hardest time talking about and Apex Hides the Hurt is one of those books. This is a book I would like to revisit, a book that I think anyone would take more from on a second reading and it is a book that has left me wanting to read more from this thoughtfully, funny author.

And now the difficult job of finding comparable authors. Novelist notes that Whitehead is known for “shrewd humor, evocative writing, well-crafted characters, sharp social commentary, and plenty of references to popular culture” and I think this is key in suggesting comparable authors. I can’t help but think of David Foster Wallace who also uses language playfully, embraces the absurd and wrote biting social commentary, although I think Whitehead’s writing is more straightforward and less willfully complicated than Wallace’s. Percival Everett is another African American author who is similarly described as writing satirical, inventive books about social issues (although as Novelist notes some of his books can be quite dark and violent). Canadian author Dany Laferrière also comes to mind as an author who writes humourous-to-the-point-of-sometimes-absurd social fiction in a post-modern style.

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