Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead – a satire with too much weight?

A “nomenclature consultant” – an expert on naming the most disparate things, from antidepressants to cars, and spoons to plasters – is summoned by the city authorities of Winthrop to decide on its new name. Lucky Aberdeen, the millionaire software entrepreneur, wants the name changed to something that will reflect the town’s capitalist aspirations; Albie Winthrop, eccentric son of the town’s aristocracy, thinks Winthrop is a perfectly appropriate name and can’t imagine what the fuss is all about; and Regina Goode, the Mayor, a descendant of the black settlers who founded the town, has her own secret agenda for what the name should be. What name will our limping word-catcher finally choose, thus deciding the future of the whole town and population?

I’ve been avoiding this book on my reading pile for a while as I’m not a great fan of work with marketing or advertising themes, but I was recently in the mood for something satirical so picked it up at last.

There are parts of this novel I enjoyed and those I was much less sure of, but it’s always very clever. Frighteningly clever really so I suspect I didn’t get all the nuances by a long chalk, but there you are. I am after all from Essex so nuances aren’t our strong point. Anyway, I rather liked our main character, the naming expert with the increasing limp. There was indeed something very Murakami-like both about him and in the way the book was written. I think this was to do with how our hero both does and does not interact effectively with the townsfolk around him and the sometimes surreal nature of his thought processes. That said, the way the story is told doesn’t have the skill and sense of spaciousness that Murakami has. In fact I often felt the weight of both the satire and the story, not to mention the constant focus on names and what they mean, threatening to crush me as a reader, which wasn’t a particularly refreshing feeling. Reading this book therefore felt more like a trudge than a dance in places, despite (or perhaps because of) the cleverness of it all.

Anyway, speaking about The Limp (capitals deliberate), I rather enjoyed this motif that becomes more and more evident as the story progresses. At first the name expert’s toe has merely been stubbed, an event we see by means of one of the regular flashbacks to his previous corporate life, and then we gradually see the whole digit become increasingly painful until it takes a very gory centre-stage in one of the main scenes at the end. That somehow reminded me of Ishiguro’s work also, so there does seem to be a Japanese influence at play here, just not such a light-touch one.

I also enjoyed the occasional appearances of the mad chambermaid. Or rather lack of appearances as she can never get in to our hero’s room and her efforts to enter become ever more violent and abusive:

“Housekeeping!” She loosed her little fury against the door.
“I’m okay!”
“I need to get inside!”
“I’m okay!” he repeated. He marvelled at the ridiculousness of this response, but kept his fingers crossed.
“You are preventing me from doing my job!” The two black stalks of her legs interrupted the light from beneath the door. It occurred to him that she might have an organic defect in her brain. But then she bellowed, “What are you doing that is so important!” and he decided that her problem probably claimed provenance in both nature and nurture.
He resolved to wait her out. She appeared to sense this, employing a primitive, animal awareness, growing quiet save for her quick, shallow breathing. “I will return!” she said after a time.

I loved her. The way she’s brought into the equation at the end, including the revelation about her identity, is deliciously good. That said, I felt that other minor characters didn’t come over quite as well as the maid who never appears. I never really got to grips with the three people who run the Council and their various wheeler-dealerings as they search for a new name for their town, though I’ve never been strong on office politics or that interested in it. It just seemed a shame as I think the triumvirate of Lucky, Albie and Regina should have been sharper. Perhaps the issue was that they were so very much filtered through the main character’s viewpoint and judgement that they didn’t totally take on a life of their own.

Then we come to the names and the whole concept of naming things which is such a deep foundation for this book. Part of me wondered on occasion if it was a one-trick pony driven to the point of exhaustion and beyond, but the use of names and the politics and emotions behind them are a key aspect of the character (himself interestingly nameless, unless I missed something throughout …) and are themselves very thought-provoking:

Everything is bright and mysterious until you know what it is called and then all the light goes out of it … 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 things – that would be miraculous. But he never got to the heart of the thing, he just slapped a bandage on it to keep the pus in.

Wonderful writing indeed. And as for Apex and why it hides the hurt? Well, even though it’s not the title I’d have chosen and doesn’t give you many clues at first, it’s worth waiting for. But you’ll have to find its secrets out for yourselves, though I will say the concept of it certainly brought a smile to my lips. As did the name expert’s final choice of a new name for the town – I would so definitely live somewhere called that!…

However I do think that a shorter, sharper and more rigorous book might have got the message across more easily. So my view is this book is worth reading though you may well struggle a bit getting to the end. Which is itself surprisingly bleak, so be warned.

Apex Hides the Hurt, Alma Books 2009, ISBN: 978 1 84688 075 9

[Anne is now being extra careful to avoid stubbing her toe and is also beginning to wonder whether a glamorous or possibly controversial new name for herself might make all the difference …]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at: www.annebrooke.com, www.gayreads.co.uk, www.biblicalfiction.co.uk and www.gathandria.com (for fantasy fiction).

7 comments on “Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead – a satire with too much weight?

  1. john latham
    June 9, 2011

    The authoritarian violence of naming things! It sounds an interesting book- reminds me of the horrors of place marketing (Stoke’s ‘cultural quarter’ anyone?)- obviously Murakami & Ishiguro great writers- are you setting the bar a little high? But maybe ‘clever writing’ can be alienating in its own special way? A great & thought-provoking review. Thanks, Jogn.

  2. rosyb
    June 9, 2011

    I like the sound of this one – and satirical novels seem a bit depressingly rare. Think I should give it a whirl, Anne?

  3. annebrooke
    June 9, 2011

    I’m sure Stoke’s cultural quarter is wonderful, John! 🙂 I did actually feel alienated by the cleverness of it all – we Essex Gals just want easy lives, don’t you know. On the other hand, Rosy – being a bright and intellectual lamp – may love it!

    Anne
    xxx

  4. Jackie
    June 11, 2011

    This sounds like a very strange book filled with eccentric characters. And those names!
    The chambermaid sounds amusing, though.

  5. annebrooke
    June 11, 2011

    She was amazing – I could have done with a lot more of her, Jackie! 🙂

  6. Nikki
    June 13, 2011

    It reminds me of Translations which I read at A-Level, that was the first time it ever dawned on me that names are important. This sounds like a good book, full of eccentricity. And you’ve given such tantalising details I feel I have to read on to see what you were holding back on!

  7. annebrooke
    June 13, 2011

    It’s certainly interesting, Nikki! 🙂 Though written with rather too heavy a hand for me …

    Anne
    xxx

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