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To Hide And Hide Not

[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!”