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Colson Whitehead

Scoffing at the Band-Aid Solutions

Colson Whitehead When young rock stars start writing songs about the drudgery of life on the road, their music almost always suffers. So when a leading young novelist who’s been on a few reading tours starts to write about drinking in hotel bars, should readers be wary? Thankfully, Colson Whitehead has a way with subverting clichés.

“Some people say travel broadens you,” he offers. “Travel always puts me into an existential space, and I like bringing my characters into that area: a place of being stripped of the familiar, and they’re forced to see themselves anew.”

Whitehead’s third novel, Apex Hides the Hurt, takes up the idea of dislocation, in both physical and psychological senses. Its protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant” who comes up with names for products; he’s hired by the town of Winthrop (in an unidentified state of America) to advise it whether to change its name to the snappier “New Prospera.”

Sitting in Toronto’s Consort Bar at the King Edward Hotel, drinking Upper Canada Dark Ale and popping the occasional Vicks cough drop to combat a cold, Whitehead reflects on how his own name is becoming a literary brand. His first two novels, The Intuitionist and John Henry Days (both published by Random House) prompted the MacArthur Foundation to award Whitehead a $500,000 “genius grant” in 2002, when he was a mere 32. “With the first three novels,” says Whitehead, “there’s a sort of off-kilter take on pop culture that you can expect. I do realize that I have a certain sensibility, and I’m just glad that people like it.”

Branding, for Whitehead, is not necessarily a bad thing. In the late’90s, he himself wrote copy for an unsuccessful internet start-up aimed at making web chats seem as exciting as television shows. “I was definitely good at it,” he recalls, “and I think if not for enjoying writing fiction, I would have gone into advertising or something. There is some part of me that condemns but also salutes good marketing names.”

In Apex, Whitehead looks to have his Sara Lee and eat it too. The book revels in telling us zingy product names dreamt up by its protagonist, but it also smirks at misrepresentation, as found, for instance, in the “contemporary brand of establishment … that dressed itself in rustic sincerity but adhered to the rapacious philosophy of the multinational.” The consultant himself has a formless quality highlighted by the fact that Whitehead never assigns him a name. The character’s greatest achievement in life thus far is naming the band-aid competitor that gives the novel its name: “Apex,” which achieves popularity because it comes in various shades corresponding to various skin colours.

Random House’s marketers, appropriately, promoted the book to U.S. reviewers by creating “plastic band-aid holders with the name of the book on it,” says Whitehead. “The band-aids that were inside were so incredibly cheap – it was ridiculous. They were sort of unusable, very much like the band-aids in the book: you start looking at them and they start peeling off the skin, or a drop of moisture makes them disintegrate.”

Apex may hide the hurt, but not for long. The protagonist uses it to cover up a wound which he never really examines, and which gets worse due to a series of absurd accidents. Much of Whitehead’s writing deals with the difficult consequences of seemingly random events: The Intuitionist details the life of an elevator inspector after an elevator she’d examined plunges down its shaft and is destroyed, while the non-fiction book The Colossus of New York (2003) considers the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City, where Whitehead lives. After the consultant’s accident, his life plunges from what seemed to be its own apex.

“Once you achieve a certain success,” says Whitehead, “where else is there to go but down?” The town in his novel, originally named “Freedom” by its freed-slave founders, re-dubbed “Winthrop” by a rich white family, and perhaps soon to be re-branded by the town’s nouveau riche software developer Lucky Aberdeen, has taken part in these cycles. The protagonist himself is torn between all three camps: he’s African-American; he went to a fictional university that’s a seat of largely white privilege (Whitehead himself studied at Harvard), and he works in marketing. In the Winthrop Hotel bar where he drinks, these three camps intersect, and we get the sense that his search for a name for the town will overlap with his own attempts to forge an identity.

Whitehead, who inherited his given name from his grandfather and whose surname apparently comes from a light-skinned Seminole ancestor, is preoccupied with ideas of power and oppression, but he doesn’t see them in terms of black and white morality, nor does he write about supremely virtuous heroes or thoroughly despicable villains. Likewise, marketing itself is simply a fact of life to which he feels largely indifferent.

“It’s not going anywhere,” he says. “It’s like heartburn or a snowstorm – it’s a natural part of the world. You can complain, but you’re still going to get wet when it rains. I’m not out to end marketing.

“I’m more interested in people than the things. I’m more interested in the forces of oppression that [the consultant] is reacting against than the simple phrase, ‘Marketing is really bad.’ Sure marketing is bad. So is having a hangnail. I put them in the same category.”

And if marketing, as a low-grade irritant, is here to stay, one might as well exploit it: “I was at a reading last week,” remembers Whitehead, “and somebody was like, ‘I just saw that Johnson & Johnson is putting out three-toned Band-Aids.’ So I’m like, ‘Do they owe me a kickback? What’s up?’”

— Originally appeared in The National Post


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