Colson Whitehead: Apex Hides The Hurt

Whitehead, Colson (2006), Apex Hides The Hurt, Anchor
ISBN 978-1-4000-3126-9

DSC_0625Although all of Whitehead’s books seem to be genre bastards, Apex Hides The Hurt is difficult to categorize even by Whitehead’s standards. This is both a weakness and a strength of this novel. On the one hand, the book is so well written, so well structured, so intelligently built that it’s hard not to be awed by Whitehead’s capabilities as a writer. There is nothing that escapes his eye, no detail, word, turn of phrase left unattended, the whole book is like a finely crafted work of art, that uses genre as one of many tools to give his ideas shape and form. On the other hand, Whitehead has, for whatever reason, forgotten the story, the life, an energy that is not cerebral, something that moves the reader through the story. In this book. Whitehead turns out to be a bit of a solipsist. In my last review I mentioned that some writers are supervising their readers. Well, the author of Apex Hides The Hurt seems barely aware that he has any readers.

There are several attempts at building a story, three kinds of suspense built in, but Whitehead is not able or willing to follow through on one of them and fashion the necessary drive for his book. His meddling with genres is one of the reasons why that’s the case. Apex Hides The Hurt shares many of the characteristics of his debut novel; The Intuitionist, however, had a noir-ish mystery plot to hold on to while Whitehead wielded his ideas and concepts. There is none of this here. This is not to say that this novel is utterly devoid of suspense. In a sly manner, Whitehead withholds two kinds of information from us, both of which create a mild suspense. These two kinds of information come at the end of the two narrative strands that are intertwined in the book. One is taking place in the present, charting the nameless protagonist’s arrival in a town called Winthrop. He has been hired by the town’s council to advise them in the matter of re-naming the town. Why they would hire him is revealed in the second strand. The protagonist is a nomenclature consultant, that is, he’s someone who is paid to give a name to products, people, campaigns, and he is naturally gifted at what he does. In this second strand we follow his career to its end.

DSC_0622And here we have the two kinds of information withheld from us. The future name of the town is the first: not until the last pages are we apprised of the name that the protagonist chooses for the town; the second is this: although, in the narrative that takes place in the present, we are told that his career has abruptly ended, it is not until the end of the book that we find out why. For good measure, Whitehead throws in a few thriller elements, as his protagonist digs through the town’s history and discovers long lost secrets. These three kinds of suspense (name, reason, archive), however, are pursued halfheartedly; Whitehead constantly saps the energy, the blood, from the book by turning every potentially riveting element into yet another spire in his construction. It’s amazing how much disinterest he displays in these parts of the construction of a novel. Despite all I said, the novel, make no mistake, is still a great read and it still draws you in, but it does so solely on the basis of his ideas, his commitments and his writing, not because of the plot or even the flimsy characters. None of the characters in Apex Hides The Hurt exist because of exigencies of the plot, or because the psychology of one of the characters demanded it, every single character can be read to “stand for” something.

In the narrative that takes place in the present, we have the trinity represented in the town council: there’s Regina Goode, the town mayor, a direct descendant from one of the two founders of the town (named Goode and Field). She wants to change the town’s name to its original name, Freedom. There’s Lucky Aberdeen, a successful entrepreneur who wants the town to be named in a snappy and attractive way that will pull business to the town, the name he came up with is New Prospera. And then there’s Albie, the slightly mad last scion of the Winthrop family, who wants to retain the town’s name. His family originally pressured the founders into changing the name in the first place. The Winthrop family had a very successful barbed wire business and the town that was called Freedom paid with its name for the opportunities that having the business settle there would have afforded them. Clearly, the situation thus mapped out contains a wealth of ideas. Most directly, perhaps, ideas that pertain to American history. See, as it happens, Goode and Field were freed slaves, so the fact that they founded a town and called it Freedom is interesting; even more so when considering that the town of Winthrop, as the protagonist encounters it, is predominantly white and Regina Goode the first black mayor in ages. Additionally, no reader will be able to refrain from associating the name of “Winthrop” with the most famous Winthrop of early American history, John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who was immortalized in Hawthorne’s searing masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. Winthrop is a dominant figure in Apex Hides The Hurt, although always somewhat indirectly. There are a few way that the historical Winthrop ties into the novel.

DSC_0623One of the ways is through the city of Winthrop, Mass, a town that is actually named for the governor. In Apex Hides The Hurt, there is a fictional university that is clearly supposed to be Harvard, but is called “Quincy”. Is it a coincidence that, at the other end of the Massachusetts Bay, there is another small town called Quincy? Quincy is the more famous town of the two, being the city where John Adams, John Quincy Adams and John Hancock were born, thus, when Albie exclaims “But then Lucky told me you were a Quincy man, and I knew I would get a fair shake. A Quincy man is a man of his word.”, it takes on a wider significance. Now, I realize that this is a lot to infer from just the two names “Winthrop” and “Quincy”, because “there are a lot of rich white people named Winthrop”, but, as Whitehead goes on to say, “with names there is no coincidence.” So, to sum up, Whitehead presents to us both slavery, and a rough sketch of the black political experience in the US, as well as the man who first legalized slavery in the Colonies and was part of quite a few developments that shaped the United States and still do. It’s not, however, a small-scale depiction of American history, since the chronological order is mixed up.

But in Apex Hides The Hurt references are always a bit slanted. Another reference to John Winthrop might, for example, be through the title, which is a brand name our protagonist came up with for a cheap line of adhesive bandages and the slogan that accompanies it. It’s hard not to associate “Apex” (you are not told, until you’re a good deal into the book, what the title of the book actually means) with John Winthrop and his phrase “city upon a hill” (from his sermon “A Model of Christian Clarity”), that has long since become part of the American self-image, and it is indeed to Winthrop, this city, this destination that the protagonist comes and where, in a sense, his new life begins. This city seems to carry a certain promise for him, as it had for Goode and Field. He has never led a life that demanded choices, struggles of him, this changes in the town of Winthrop. The choice of a name that he’s been asked to make, mirrors a choice that he needs to make with respect to his own self, to his own identity. A weary traveler, as he arrives, he is subsequently increasingly committed to not ‘deal falsely with his self in this work he has undertaken’ (to paraphrase Winthrop’s sermon), to do right by the town and himself.

DSC_0624Indeed it is the protagonist’s self that seems to be at stake in this mission, and if we look more closely at the symbols and structures, it’s easy to see that it all revolves around him. The protagonist is, which we haven’t mentioned yet, an African-American, and the fate of the black town that turned into a white corporate town, is, in some ways, his fate as well. He rose quickly to the top, didn’t suffer any discriminations and would fit well into the select group of Black Republicans. He’s the ‘Black friend’ all racists seem to be able to marshal in a matter of minutes. He has dedicated his life to camouflaging things, making them look and sound attractive. It’s no surprise that he, in his detached, highly ironic voice, mentions the marketing campaign for the adhesive bandages in passing at best, that is to say the brilliant idea of making colored bandages. Whitehead offers us one of the most frequent examples used in Whiteness studies, the normative use of words like “flesh” in phrases like “flesh-colored”. “Whose flesh?” a savvy ad man asks. Whose flesh indeed. And so, the company starts to produce bandages in all hues and colors, so that everyone can have a flesh-colored bandage. The hues are so well done that the bandages are no longer conspicuous upon the injured body. You can forget you were ever injured, Apex, as the bandages are subsequently named, “hides the hurt”. This is the insanely successful slogan that Apex runs on and they go on and sell huge amounts of bandages, targeted to minority groups and the poor in general.

There is more to this, of course, than just a curious story about marketing and a plot device. In the story, people lose their toes because they forgot the toe was injured because the bandage hid the hurt. I read this as a reference to cosmetic politics that make things seem sound and proper, when they are actually not. What the right disparagingly calls “political correctness” and which is actually nothing but respect for your fellow men, is used, in many cases, as a cosmetic tool. As if racism went away, if we just call people by better names. Cosmetic politics, if we look at newspapers and polls, often make people believe we are living in a post-feminist, post-racial age, and any complaint about discrimination is suddenly reactionary, backwards-looking. Leave the past alone! Germans whine, we are enlightened now, don’t you see, we have days of remembrance. How dare you! They howled as Holder, Attorney general of the US, called his country “a nation of cowards”. But below these bandages, these nice-sounding names and offices (a black president! How’s that for Apex?) hide the rot. Understanding the town, and understanding yourself, in Apex Hides The Hurt, means looking below the surfaces, looking at the rot. There are those who believe that to be too critical is inconvenient, almost a character flaw, but Whitehead’s point is: it’s necessary and urgent! Things that rot eventually die off and may maim the rest of the body. In one of the most fascinating tensions in the book, though, this urgency does not translate into urgent writing.

On the contrary. The writing, as I said, is predominantly ironic and detached. The writing is very deliberate, but cold and frequently almost dull. This is not Auster’s ‘dull’, this is an aesthetically thrilling ‘dull’ because these sentences betray the art with which they have been constructed. There is a stiffness, but it’s also the protagonist’s stiffness. He is used to look down upon people, to dismiss them and their petty issues. Hence also the fact that all kinds of interesting and important issues come up but they barely make a dent in the narrative. These things are just not significant for the protagonist or rather: not yet. The style and, at the beginning, the ubiquitous witty stories about brands and re-brandings, are, partly, a satire of consumerism and advertising. But that’s a surface phenomenon, it’s the Apex. Below this surface, the protagonist’s true hurt hides, and as the book progresses, it breaks through more and more, without ever completely exploding the surface.

DSC_0625The style, and the ad culture it signifies, is important in yet more ways: while racism is frequently regarded as a purely political phenomenon, Whitehead, in this book, proposes that economics might play an important role in the establishment of repressive societies. Winthrop, in this book, is not a politician, he’s an entrepreneur and he exerts economic pressure to make Goode and Field change the name of the city. Or the matter of the normative power that Band-Aid, the leading adhesive bandage, exerts. Each time the book grazes political matters it deflects. I just suggested it may be on account of the protagonist’s disinterest. Another reason might be that they are, each time anew, packaged as economic situations, thus bleeding the concern and the problem from the situation, effectively ‘hiding the hurt’. But, just like any of the other suggested readings of the characters and situations in the book, this, too, is not a definite reading. Whitehead is too brilliant a writer to try to pound home one point and make everything in the book subject to that one point, that one reading. Apex Hides The Hurt is a multi-facetted romp through America, past and present, a realistic allegory that focuses on a small microcosm without ever losing sight of the broader context. You might find it boring sometimes, but you shouldn’t. This book can sustain several rereads without ever stopping to glitter with possibilities. Colson Whitehead is an awesome writer and this is a great book.

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Colson Whitehead: The Intuitionist

Whitehead, Colson (2000), The Intuitionist, Anchor
ISBN 0-385-49300-2

I may be experiencing a streak of luck lately with books I read for fun, but this right here is another excellent novel. It’s Colson Whitehead’s debut, published in 1999.Whitehead has since published two other novels to general praise and won a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, and reading “The Intuitionist” it’s easy to see why. It is a very well-written, completely original novel about racism and elevators. It’s not perfect but it need not be. “The Intuitionist” is very good and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It makes use of a fascinating kind of allegory: the protagonist is an Elevator Inspector, and the story is set in the Elevator inspector milieu, in a society which roughly corresponds to 1950s America, I think, featuring scenes at Elevator college seminars, in Elevator libraries, at Elevator inspector conventions, not to forget that Elevator inspecting gets done now and then and quite a bit of Elevator theory is relayed to us,including something that is most certainly a kind of Elevator deconstruction. The Derrida of Elevators is called Fuller, and although he’s been dead a while, he has an important part to play. I wager there isn’t a Derrida in actual Elevator inspecting practice. Although Elevator inspectors certainly do exist, it is not an academic profession, and I certainly doubt the existence of Elevator inspecting theory. Elevators provide an extraordinarily original allegory for a whole category of class concerns, but there is a danger. Racism and topics like that can be perceived as ‘dirty’, unpleasant, but clothing them in a clean allegory may help your rhetoric but it often reduces the inherent urgency of a topic like this. Colson Whitehead is smart enough to recognize that.

On top of this ingenious construction, he has crafted a suspenseful thriller. The plot is wonderfully complex and, true to its genre, only unravels slowly, as the protagonist finds out about intrigues and secrets hidden in every nook of the Elevator inspecting milieu. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black woman to become Elevator inspector. Inspector Watson. As someone who, in the center of power, is relegated to the peripheries, she is made to be the fall guy in what at first appears to be a union dispute. Two factions fight for the leadership of the Department of Elevator Inspectors, and as elections approach, they will use any means necessary to secure an advantage. A pair of elevators recently inspected by Watson suddenly free-fall and crash. Although nobody has been harmed, this is a terrible accident that makes headlines and puts Watson’s faction at a disadvantage. In an effort to clear her name, Watson follows up on different shady leads, has a run-in with the mob, reveals a few secrets and falls in with a bad guy. The book, as far as genre is concerned, is a cross between the bookish thrillers of Dan Brown or Elizabeth Kostova and the detective novels of Chandler, but it is, of course, far more than that.

To understand the way the allegory is weaved into the novel, I think this passage, early in thew book, is significant:

For the first time it occurs to Lila Mae that someone might have been hurt. “That’s impossible. Total freefall is a physical impossibility.” She shakes her head.
“That’s what happened,” Chuck reaffirms. He’s still looking up at the ceiling. They can hear some of their colleagues whooping outside the door. “Forty floors.”
“Which one?”
“Number Eleven, I think.”
She remembers Number Eleven distinctly. A little shy, but that’s normal in a new cab. “The entire stack is outfitted with the new Arbo antilocks,” Lila Mae argues. “Plus the standard reg gear. I inspected them myself.”
“Did you check them,” Chuck asks tentatively, “or did you intuit them?”
Lila Mae ignores the slur. “I did my job,” she says.

In this innocuous passage several important references are hidden. Arbo is an elevator manufacturer, one of the two giants of the trade. The other is called United. The important reference, however, can be found in the dichotomy between “check” and “intuit”: the two aforementioned factions fundamentally differ in their approach to elevators. One of the factions prefers a hands-on approach, to look at the wiring and the mechanical parts of the elevator to check it. They are called the Empiricists and the current Chairman of the Department of Elevators is an Empiricist. The others intuit, they feel the Elevator, they try to sunder elevators and elevator-ness. They are called Intuitionists, and Fuller, the Derrida of elevator theory, is the founding father of that discipline. Lila Mae Watson is an Intuitionist, of course. Interestingly, one of the premises of the novel is that this approach, mad as it may sound, actually works. In fact, the Intuitionists can boast better results and Lila Mae Watson is the best of them all.

The fact that the narrator calls Chuck’s reference to Intuitionism a slur, when it could also be read as a factual question, since, after all, it’s what Watson actually did, points to the fact that it is actually the precarious balance between these two ways of reading Chuck’s words that defines many conflicts in the book. It is not surprising that Lila Mae Watson, the woman on the margins, chooses this discipline. And a secret, not revealed until late in the novel, about the founder of Intuitionism, further expounds upon that intricacy. Empiricism is more than the received and dominant doctrine. It is also the ideology of the dominant power paradigm, reflecting the society’s axiomatic values. So, in a black-and-white reading, Empiricism (as defined in the novel) is white, male, commonsensical, anti-intellectual bullshit. This is reinforced by passages like the following:

See, the Empiricists stoop to check for tell-tale striations on the lift winch and seize upon oxidation scars on the compensating rope sheave, all that muscle work, and think the Intuitionists get off easy. Lazy slobs.
Some nicknames Empiricists habe for their renegade collegues: swamis, voodoo men, juju heads, witch doctors, Harry Houdinis.

One of many strengths of this novel, however, is that such a reading, tethered solely to those in power, does an injustice to the actual intricacies. Watson is the only black Intuitionist, and her guild turns out not to have clean hands, either. For one thing, the novel reflects upon the intricacies of center and periphery, not opting for the easy way out. Pompey, the first black inspector, attacks Watson two thirds into the book:

This is a white man’s world. They make the rules. You come along, strutting like you own the place. Like they don’t own you. But they do. […] I was the first one in the Department. I was the first colored elevator inspector in history. In history! And you will never, ever know what the hell they put me through. You think you have it bad? You have no idea. […] You had it easy, snot-nose kid that you are, because of me. Because of what I did for you.

Problems of identity play a central role in the novel, questions of blackness (Whitehead has clearly read Aimé Cesaire) for example and questions of class, inasmuch as income, erudition and related issues are concerned. The extent to which corporate America was inimical to the young black men and women, to which it has pitted one isolated African American against another, to which it has silenced black voices to better hear the white screech.

Now here’s where the academic dispute becomes salient. It’s clearly intended as a satire on the academic world. In chapters that sketch Watson’s professional career, we are availed of large batches of elevator theory and we are clearly not supposed to take any of that seriously. In fact, as we will find out later, some central textbooks were expressly written as a joke. Personally, however, I think this is not just satire. Communication is a central issue in the novel: I think an especially important reference here is Henry Louis Gates jr.’s theory of the Signifying Monkey. Gates’ theory rests upon the assumption that African Americans have a way of communicating which is all their own, which creates a nonviolent way of coping with oppression and the oppressor, of opening a channel of communication among the silenced. In “The Intuitionist”, all the black characters ‘signify’, in Gates’ understanding of the term; in fact, Intuitionism is, partly at least, most certainly the practice of reading and concentrating upon a subtext in order to order one’s understanding of the whole. All this is wrapped in a light package.

This book is very easy to read and it is enjoyable on a very basic aesthetic level. The language is certainly rich and assured, although, as is expected of a debut novel, it hits a few shrill notes now and then. As I said before, Whitehead manages the genres he’s using very well: it is a suspenseful thriller, until the ending, which is a disappointment but not necessarily because of Whitehead’s ineptitude. On the contrary, I think Whitehead is slowing the book down deliberately at the end, to let his points sink in. He is clearly not interested in letting the reader breeze, untouched by his thinking, through a thriller set in a strange elevator world. He wants, no, he makes us understand what we have been served. And one of the last points we are made to understand is that it is no surreal fantasy world, after all: “The Intuitionist” presents a world that is almost a mirror to ours, a city that is like ours, just with elevator theory. It’s Gotham City, with elevators.

We are never told which city the City actually is, but like Gotham, we are pretty sure the city in question is supposed to be a distorted version of New York. And so, last but not least, “The Intuitionist” can be read as an ode to New York, since, among other things, the City is described as the one which the whole world looks to where elevators are concerned. It is a precarious city, and New York is a precarious city, the city of integration, but also a city of race riots, a city of chances and death traps. When Watson, after the underwhelming finale, decides to start anew, she stays in New York and we accept this: where else would she go, but to Gotham City? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. “The Intuitionist” shows us a society that is under a heavy strain by racial and class conflicts, that is on the brink of eruption, with the tired, poor, huddled masses leading this revolt; and it shows us a way out, not the way of assimilation, but the way of intuition, of communication, of finding a voice, and hearing the muffled voice behind the thick metal doors.

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