Colson Whitehead’s third novel could be called a black comedy, if not for the unfortunate pun: This black comedy is partly about being black. It’s also about brand names. Branding and blackness run in very odd tandem, since one is a chosen process and thought to be superficial yet lingeringly consequential, and the other—also a matter of appearance—is thought of as profoundly meaningful and very much a matter of unchosen consequences, at least in American history.
The story begins with a classic setup, the stranger coming to town. We know little about him: He’s a “nomenclature consultant,” very successful but full of mystery. He’s left the firm he worked for, for reasons unknown, and he walks with a limp from a recent but unspecified injury. We gather that he’s African-American (or “black” or a “person of color”—there’s ironic commentary on the changeability and unsatisfactoriness of that nomenclature), but we don’t know what race means to him. In fact, we don’t even know his name (a bit too cute, that). Let’s play “nomenclature consultant” and brand our hero with an X.
Two of the town’s three councilors want to change the town’s name. That, too, is mysterious, so that X is like Philip Marlowe as he goes from one quirky character to the next trying to learn about the place and its history—which, it emerges, is all about race and branding too.
At the moment, the town is called Winthrop, and so is nearly everything else, from the hotel to the dissenting town councilor, Albie Winthrop, who would naturally prefer to keep the name as it is. The mayor, Regina Goode—who is also a councilor, and descended from one of the town’s two black founders—wants to go back to the name they, both former slaves, chose: Freedom. The third councilor, Lucky Aberdeen, C.E.O. of Aberdeen Software, wants a name that will attract businesses: He favors the moniker that X’s former firm came up with, New Prospera. Much is made of a law regarding the town’s naming—another mystery, but one infers that it allows the name to be changed by any two of the three councilors. X is therefore a kind of arbitrator, though he’s free to come up with any name at all.
Weirdly, X reacts to almost everyone and everything—even libraries—with sour disapproval and world-weariness. The tone of mockery bordering on sarcasm is perhaps understandable in reference to the product that made the town’s name, so to speak: Winthrop barbed wire. To recap: A town named Freedom, founded by former slaves, was renamed after a brand of barbed wire, a synecdoche for unfreedom. But Albie Winthrop (who’s white) is hardly a symbol of unearned wealth and hegemony. Though he has a baronial mansion, its rooms are empty, stripped by the wife who left him. Of Winthrop Lane, which led from the pier to the factory, Albie says, “Probably want to change the name of the road, too. It’s like they want to erase it all.”
Erasing is the point. The product-naming that made X’s name (whatever that might be) is Apex, a brand of adhesive bandage that comes in 20 shades so as not to “add insult to injury.” Now you know why “Apex hides the hurt.” (The slogan is so catchy it turns up with comic twists on nightly TV.) And now you’re going to find out why X limps: He stubbed his toe and then kept stubbing his toe, so badly that it began to rot and had to be amputated. He never noticed how bad the toe was getting because he kept covering it with Apex, which blended so well that he overlooked the injury.
X scoffs at the name Freedom because it, too, hides the hurt: “Must have been a bitch,” he thinks, “to travel all that way only to realize that they forgot to pack the subtlety.” Presumably, the thing X keeps stubbing his toe on is black American history, which his personal history papers over: He’s a graduate of Quincy College (they “believed in diversity”) as well as a star in the branding business. X clearly loathes his old firm, which hired him because he was a “Quincy man.”
He also loathes the pathetic Albie and seems to have no warmer feelings for Regina. X is contemptuous of her attractive body, which looks as if it was achieved through “StaySlim,” and her acceptance of corporate values as a necessary evil. His contempt for Lucky Aberdeen, the advocate of “New Prospera,” is more understandable. For one, Lucky (who’s also white) always wears a western-style studded vest and is bluffly hail-fellow-well-met, with all the falseness that implies. For another, he’s a booster of big business. But his “product” is also prosperity and multiculturalism. To X, that’s simply a Benetton ad.
“Apex hides the hurt”—the slogan overlooks a central quality of pain, which is that it has little to do with appearances and nobody fails to notice it when they feel it. The kind of naming X is paid for may be all about smoothing over felt reality, but in life, as opposed to marketing, that doesn’t erase anything. It’s only easy to conceal pain from the outside. Naming, however, in the sense of articulating, is very much about bringing the hidden to the surface, which is what X achieves in his investigative Marlowe role: He uncovers a long-hidden dispute between the founders about the town’s name, a dispute that speaks to the issue of whether these ex-slaves really found freedom or not. Whether this revelation will be satisfying enough for readers is another question.
It’s a problem that X doesn’t like or care about anyone or anything. The only people he comes across who might represent the struggle he finally decides is at the heart of the matter are a black hotel barkeeper and his chambermaid wife, yet X experiences them as harassing and judgmental, and he goads and judges and dislikes them in turn. His detachment flattens whatever humor there might be and muffles resonance.
X embodies the very problem that he (in an only-to-be-inferred way) diagnoses: Have racism and capitalism sucked the authentic feeling out of everything, including this man? Personally, I’m allergic to cool, to uninflected low affect and nonchalance. If they’re meant to invoke something noirish, it’s Marlowe minus the honor and pleasure in discovering like-mindedness. Readers not looking for direct emotional access to the characters may find it gratifying to solve the intellectual puzzle set here by Colson Whitehead (a MacArthur fellow, wouldn’t you know). But in my experience, hurt makes for emotional heat.
Anna Shapiro’s third novel, Living on Air, will be published by Soho Press in May.