This New York Times Notable Book from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Underground Railroad is a brisk, comic tour de force about identity, history, and the adhesive bandage industry. The town of Winthrop has decided it needs a new name. The resident software millionaire wants to call it New Prospera; the mayor wants to return to the original choice of the founding black settlers; and the town's aristocracy sees no reason to change the name at all. What they need, they realize, is a nomenclature consultant. And, it turns out, the consultant needs them. But in a culture overwhelmed by marketing, the name is everything and our hero's efforts may result in not just a new name for the town but a new and subtler truth about it as well.… (more)
It’s an extended parable about race relations, corporate culture, consumerism, and social change, conveyed by the adventures of a
"On the rare occasions that he entered libraries, he always felt assured of his virtue. If they figured out how to distill essence of library into a convenient delivery system—a piece of gum or a gelcap, for example—he would consume it eagerly, relieved to be finished with more taxing methods of virtue gratification." (92)
Random awesome punch:
"No, Albie’s wife hadn’t taken everything in the divorce. She had left him his inappropriate emotional reactions to small things." (79)
I can’t resist a one-two:
"Lily Peet-Esposito, a half-pint brunette from down South, whose true personality kicked in after three drinks, and who was a connoisseur of jokes describing the cultural misunderstandings that arose when religious leaders of different faiths unexpectedly found themselves on life rafts and desert islands." (173)
My introduction to Whitehead, on a tip from a very literate colleague. Now I’m eager to read "The Intuitionist," his debut novel about, um, elevator inspectors.
A small town hires a "nomenclature consultant" to choose its future name. The local mayor favours the name chosen by the town's founding fathers who were liberated slaves: Freedom. The local aristocrat wants to keep the name his
At turns funny and profound, this is a well-written, satirical look at history and human relationships, which seem to all come down to marketing and image. With the proper name, all is possible and right with the world. But, sometimes names "hide the hurt" with disastrous consequences.
A stroke of genius in that the nomenclature consultant remains un-named throughout the book!
APEX HIDES THE HURT
A nameless nomenclature consultant comes to the town of Winthrop, which is looking to change its name. Three prominent citizens have different ideas about what to call the town. The mayor, a descendant of the escaped slaves that founded the town, want to
Whitehead’s protagonist, who has suffered a recent fall from grace, wanders through the town, feted and seduced by the three factions. On this framework, Whitehead examines contemporary culture, history, advertising, race relations, and the whole process of branding. The satire and snark is laid on thick, in Whitehead’s crisp sentences that sparkle like the driest of ginger ale. It’s part Dilbert, part Invisible Man. It is chockfull of quotable one-liners, yet it manages to be profound. All the shiny new names, rebranding, focus groups and target demographics can’t hide the wounds inflicted by history.
Is it a surprise that Regina favors a return to the name Freedom, that Albie likes the current name, and Lucky wants New Prospera?
The three seek professional advice from a nameless guy who names things. He's from a very special, very high stakes business, and he is Whitehead's protagonist.
He came up with the names and like any good parent he knocked them around to teach them life lessons. He bent them to see if they'd break, he dragged them behind cars by heavy metal chains, he exposed then to high temperatures for extended periods of time. Sometimes consonants broke off and left angry vowels on the laboratory tables. How else was he to know if they were ready for what the world had in store for them?
Those were the good times...In the coffee room they threw names around like weekends tossing softballs. Clunker names fell with a thud on the ground...They brainstormed, bullshitted, performed assorted chicanery, and then sometimes they hit one out of the park. Sometimes they broke through to the other side and came up with something so spectacular and unexpected, so appropriate to the particular thing waiting, that the others could only stand in awe. You joined the hall of legends.
Once hired, The Name Guy [my name for the protagonist] heads to Winthrop, moseys about, chatting with denizens and visitors, and the novel settles into exposing everyone's backstories, including TNG's. As the naming work progresses, Whitehead doles out a lot to think about, not least of which is the story behind the novel's title. It is not a linear advance; TNG's attention, perception, recognition and comprehension, and finally understanding are't linear. Whitehead's presentation reflects the episodic nature of research and understanding.
Good book. Not perfect, but good. Thumbs up.
80% of the time I was spacing out because
The nomenclature expert (who is ironically unnamed) is our main point of view character. His prior nomenclature triumph was the development and naming of a multicultural band-aid that would match the user's skin color (or "hide" the hurt). We are in his mind most of the book, and there is a lot, and I mean a lot, of riffing going on there. Every other thought relates to potential products and potential names for them. It's meant to be a satire on advertising and consumerism, I gather, but the result is a book in which the characters are cardboard and the plot is minimal. There were a few funny and inventive parts, but overall I was very disappointed, and mostly skimmed this.
Fun and full of mentionable marketing metaphors.