[By Jerry Ward]
Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt (2006) is a comic book. The writer of comedy, Gilbert Highet said with some authority in The Anatomy of Satire (1962), “likes people, not in spite of their peculiarities, but because of them” (155). Whitehead likes people.
In Apex Hides the Hurt, he depicts what is ludicrous about how people do or do not do things with words. Indeed, his novel is proper and slightly British. One senses the ghost of Henry James in the book’s machinery although its effect is pure George Bernard Shaw. After all, the novel is primarily about the deception of words.
The plot is about nothing more than the renaming of a town, and the protagonist is merely an ad guy, a nomenclature consultant. Everything is so comme il faut about the novel that a reader only grabs its American humor when she or he is shocked into recognizing Whitehead’s target is the pervasive dismissiveness of American life, liberty and pursuit of money.
Words are cheap. You can buy a whole dictionary of words for less than the cost of a hamburger at an up-scale restaurant. Deeds are expensive.
Put Ralph Ellison in conversation with Colson Whitehead. Ellison mined Homeric epic, the picaresque novel and the Bildungsroman, Herman Melville’s power of whiteness, and African American folk wisdom to work up effects in Invisible Man. Ellison had the backing of Constance Rourke’s American Humor. Colson has the backing of J. L. Austin’s magnum opus How to Do Things with Words. He exploits the deadpan realism of Gustave Flaubert, Herman Melville’s power of blackness, Ishmael Reed’s critiques of the exceptional American mind, and Ellison’s secret of how to appeal to cultivated sensibilities. Whitehead and Ellison diverge nicely.
The narrator/protagonist of Invisible Man is nameless, invisible, and loquacious. He is a spiller of beans. The protagonist of Apex Hides the Hurt is visible and nameless. Whitehead lets a narrator possessed of qualified omniscience do all the talking.
Apex Hides the Hurt will satisfy the most discerning middle-brow palate, because its magic is warranted by Blyden Jackson’s observation in “The Negro’s Image of His Universe as Reflected in His Fiction” (1960) regarding irony. Jackson told his well-educated readers “It must be admitted that irony could hardly consort with children or with minstrel men. It requires a certain refinement of perception. It depends upon that nice derangement of affairs in which an outcome is incongruous with an expectation.” For Jackson, and one surmise for Whitehead, “the presiding genius in the universe of Negro fiction is the ogre of an irony.” Whitehead does a great service for his readers by putting the presiding genius is the spotlight one more time. He challenges the notion that African Americans cannot write African American fiction in a post-Jim Crow circus. Band-Aid does not hide the hurt; Apex does. But on this matter, Blyden Jackson should have the last words: “How incongruous with an expectation is this ironic outcome!”