Colson Whitehead is, along with Jhumpa Lahiri, almost certainly the most critically adored American novelist under 40. To be really sure about it, you'd need some kind of hypothetical rave-ometer (which, come to think of it, is kind of a Whiteheadian idea), but after two novels--The Intuitionist and John Henry Days--he has been awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant, praised by John Updike and Jonathan Franzen and compared (by this magazine) to Ralph Ellison and Toni Morrison. So it's a bit of a surprise to find that his third novel, Apex Hides the Hurt (Doubleday), is a rather modest affair, slender and conceptual in nature. Wouldn't this be the moment, tactically speaking, to kick out the jams with a massive, world-electrifying tome? It's also a bit of a surprise to find that it's pretty bad.
The premise of Apex Hides the Hurt is slim even for a slim novel (212 pages, generously spaced). Our hero is a nomenclature consultant, a man whose job is thinking up names for products--"healing the disquiet of anonymity through the application of a balming name." He's a mordant, gloomy, heavy-lidded fellow given to hiding in his hotel room, nursing the memory of a recent professional calamity, the nature of which we learn only gradually.
This professional namer--he never gets a name of his own--has been summoned to a small, geographically nonspecific town to arbitrate a dispute over its name. It used to be called Winthrop, after its 19th century patriarch, but a local software magnate is looking for something more hip and happening--"New Prospera" has been suggested. Also in the running is the town's original name, its Ur-name, chosen by the former slaves who founded it: Freedom.
There is a truth at the heart of this novel, although that doesn't make it good. The truth is that names can reveal the hidden essence of a thing, but they can also conceal it. That is an insight the reader will arrive at long before Whitehead's protagonist does (you may possibly be aware of it before opening the book). In the meantime he mopes around town riffing on the ephemera of small-town America and indulging his obsession with brand names. The tone is light, by turns over- and underwritten. Our hero seems as uninterested in his fate as we are.
The strong, antiseptic, anesthetic odor of postmodernism clings to Apex Hides the Hurt, a sense that you're watching the shadow play of symbols of things and not the things themselves. There are things around that hurt--vacant late-capitalist follies, personal disillusionment, buried historical crimes. But Whitehead is unable or unwilling to reveal them.