by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead’s two previous novels (The Intuitionist and
John Henry Days) were smart, unusual, and quite unlike each other — save the commanding yet playful use of language in each. In other words, Whitehead can write: he has many things to say, and knows how to say them. Of course I was going to read his third novel.
Approaching a novel with high expectations is a tricky thing. There’s nothing quite like knowing you’ve got a new book by an author you like in your possession — it’s one of the best flavors of anticipation possible, if you are a book nerd. The crash, if it comes, is brutal. When it doesn’t… well, damn, Colson Whitehead really is a genius.
Apex is yet again different: the petri dish is more sparsely populated, the focus a bit more relentless. The main character is a “nomenclature consultant” gifted with the ability to give a thing its rightful name. He can do it with adhesive bandages, with pills, and now he’s been asked to do it for a town.
Winthrop is a small town, named for the barbed wire magnate who thinks he really put Winthrop on the map. But before Winthrop was Winthrop, it was most importantly on the map — the free black settlers who founded it called it Freedom. A software millionaire (this century’s barbed wire magnate) is intent on putting Winthrop back on the map as New Prospera. Mr Gifted but Somehow Troubled is called in to figure out what town is going to call itself.
It seems a disservice to reveal the choice of name, as so much of the pleasure of the book is in getting there, and realizing what a perfect choice it is. Blurting it out in a book review — there’s no way it maintains even a fraction of the power. You’ll miss all the speculation, all the thought about the power of names, and the playing with language. I mean, this is how the nomenclature consultant thinks of shuttle buses:
Never mind the initial mental image of the ungainly vehicle, and its battle between intimacy and utility — a shuttle bus approaches grace on the asphalt of humility, he insisted. Inevitably, his colleagues shook their heads when he got to that part, but he never wavered. 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 ashes. Shuttle buses, at worst, were unwitting accomplices. Being a shuttle bus, he argued, meant never having to say you were sorry. He always expected applause when he finished.
The writing is amazing, the story is smart, so if you enjoy good fiction that engages your brain, go buy it. Highly recommended.
[I am so terribly behind in posting reviews, I actually read this in January. I’m sorry for the long silence here. I’m back now.]