Cultural insight, conceptual ingenuity and cutting-edge humor distinguish the third novel by a New York writer who never fails to engage and intrigue.
A rose by any other name would smell rotten, or so suggests the high-priced “nomenclature consultant” who serves as the protagonist for this allegory about how branding has become such a crucial signifier of meaning in America (and providing names has become a lucrative enterprise, in this novel at least). While Whitehead’s latest lacks the epic scope of John Henry Days (2001), it is every bit as thematically ambitious and provocative. Within the supersizing, homogenizing and mass-merchandising of American culture, names are crucial, the protagonist insists, as signals for cognitive response. Thus, it’s all the more significant that this protagonist goes unnamed throughout the narrative, though the reader surmises that he is a young African-American who encounters plenty of white people (and white values) within the social and professional circles in which he operates. Most of the plot concerns a town that is in the midst of an identity crisis. A development-minded, high-tech entrepreneur is campaigning to change its name from Winthrop to New Prospera, and the town has enlisted the consultant’s involvement in the re-branding. The last remaining (and fairly addled) member of the white Winthrop family resists the change; so does the mayor, a black woman descended from a family with deep roots in the increasingly Caucasian community. As the protagonist delves deeper into the history of Winthrop, he gets a better understanding of just what the name change entails (it turns out that the town has changed its name before). At times, the confluence of racial issues and branding issues threatens thematic overload, though a crucial backstory concerning “flesh-colored” bandages (the “Apex” of the title) and a meditation on the various names that have been applied to the protagonist’s race bring the two strains together.
While making no attempt at depth of characterization, Whitehead audaciously blurs the line between social realism and fabulist satire.