The trouble with names—and words in general, really—is that they start to fall apart into so many syllables if picked at too much. It's all a culturally agreed-upon fiction, the language game. Pull the sheet off a word, and the thing beneath it isn't really there. No wonder God gave Adam the task of naming the animals; it isn't the type of job for a deity. Still, as fictions go, language has proven functional, and names invaluable. And the world keeps producing new things that need Adams to name them.

The unnamed (significantly, no doubt) narrator of Colson Whitehead's Apex Hides The Hurt is one such modern Adam, a highly successful "nomenclature consultant" who, as the novel opens, is taking on his first assignment after getting sidelined by what's ultimately revealed to be a job-related injury. A legend in his field—who else would have thought to use "Apex" to rocket a line of multicultural adhesive bandages into the public consciousness?—he now faces his greatest challenge: renaming the Midwestern plains town of Winthrop. Forces vie for his favor, including an eccentric heir to the Winthrop family, a mayor descended from the town's original freed slave settlers, and a businessman with a genius for self-promotion who wants a name to match his vision for the town's 21st-century existence. Researching Winthrop's history, Whitehead's protagonist finds more loose ends than dark secrets—mostly discarded stories, stray bits of the past that threaten to tangle up the future.


Perhaps taking his cues from his protagonist's profession, Whitehead keeps his prose as streamlined as it comes, and he uses it to craft a satiric novel in tune with a moment where marketing overshadows content and even the lowliest blogger thinks in branding terms. Chain stores designed for universal appeal have begun to squeeze out fixtures like the library from Winthrop's town squares, but Apex's narrator spends much of the novel realizing that the past is hard to put away, much less contain in a word. Whitehead has fun pitilessly sending up the absurdity of the marketing game, but beneath the humor there's a repulsion at the notion that the same rules needed to push a product can be applied to places, history, and other things that don't fit into colorful cardboard boxes.