Living in Tantalasia
Colson Whitehead’s two previous novels are notable for the extraordinary mileage the author gets out of his metaphors. In The Intuitionist, his first, Whitehead somehow turns the fantastical story of competing elevator inspectors (one group does it mechanically, the other via intuition) into an allegory that covers a great deal of the African-American experience while exploring contemporary ideas of otherness. Whitehead’s next novel, John Henry Days, is even more ambitious, integrating American folksongs, ‘60s rock’n'roll, the legend of railroad worker John Henry, and postmodern commodification into a book that not only sums up a good deal of antebellum American history, but also manages to intelligently critique the dot-com era America while delivering a terrific love story.
Taking all this into consideration, it is no surprise that Apex Hides the Hurt, Whitehead’s third novel, is packed with a number of allegorical elements blended into a multi-layered structure. What’s unfortunate, however, is that all this technical artistry is in the service of unremarkable themes and ideas.
Whitehead’s narrator (who remains nameless) is a marketer with a knack for perfectly naming products. He’s called to the Midwestern suburb of Winthrop to settle a controversy over what the town will be named. The problem is that the city council consists of three people, each with a different choice. Lucky Aberdeen, a millionaire software designer, wants to rename the town New Prospera to help attract hi-tech industry. Albie Winthrop, scion of the industrialist family that brought old-economy prosperity to the town in the 19th century and originally named it, wants the name to stay as it is. Regina Goode, descendent of the freed slaves who originally founded the town, wants the town to be named Freedom, the name the ex-slaves chose before Winthrop moved in.
With the table thus set, Whitehead relentlessly serves up 200 pages of satire of America’s fixation with prosperity and how that fixation steamrolls everything in the way of economic growth. Some of the satire is dead on. Early in the novel we meet a Starbucks-like coffee chain that is named “Admiral Java.” It mines “black gold bubbling from the earth’s crust” and in the chain “even the furthest colony receive[s] weekly newsletters from HQ outlining the specials, the recent hairnet edicts, the latest volleys in the great sanitizer debate.” Turning the comparatively benign Starbucks into the colonizing, extracting Admiral Java is a wry bit of irony that brilliantly makes Whitehead’s point, while cleverly describing the suburban Winthrop.
Similarly, the company Winthrop is a major manufacturer of barbed wire. Its flagship product is an especially effective barb that is shaped like a “W.” Later, we learn that Winthrop’s logo is in fact derived from that very barb. Whitehead is implying a deep relationship between marketing logos and vicious pieces of metal that rip your skin and entrap you.
Clever as they are, though, these ingenious bits of irony do little more than describe a scene that most Americans, and many others, are lamentably familiar with. The danger with satire is that real life might be more inherently ridiculous than the satirist’s creations, and Apex Hides the Hurt falls prey to this danger. Cities like Joe, Montana and Celebration, Florida prove that living, breathing Americans are already quite willing to go just as far as Apex’s characters. Farther actually—our culture is an ironist’s dream, full of warbling American Idoleers, scheming Survivors, capitalists all too happy to sell themselves and their history for a buck. Whitehead’s novel rests on the assumption that we’ll be so overcome by his characters’ absurd pursuit of the almighty dollar that his work will come as a dreadful revelation. But rather than shock, this satire recites, and soon the recitation wears. Whatever sting Whitehead’s irony had is ground down by redundancy.
Apex’s brightest spot is in the nameless protagonist’s search for self-identity. Like the protagonist from John Henry Days, Whitehead’s narrator is a corporate drudge at the height of his profession who can’t help feel that the work he does is worthless. Taking refuge behind large doses of cynicism and material wealth, the narrator forestalls a reckoning for as long as possible until, at last, he bottoms out. Apex finds the narrator at the beginning of his long climb back up. Throughout the novel, the protagonist that is never given a name finds pieces of himself in the town that doesn’t know its own name. Both are so enmeshed in euphemism, self-deceit, and material prosperity that they lack the language and the information necessary to properly pursue the matter of identity.
These sentiments, banal when applied to the problem of American commercialism, become somewhat more interesting when used to depict the narrator’s mind state. While waiting for his food at a diner, the narrator (as he often does throughout the novel) coins a term to describe his feelings:
“What do you call that terrible length of time between seeing that your food is ready and when your waitress drags her ass over to your table with it? . . . His eyes darted to the plates sitting on the kitchen ledge. Tantalasia. Rather broad applications, Tantalasia, apart from the food thing. An emotional state, that muted area between desire and consummation. . . . Also Tantalasia: the in-between place where you’re not sure if you should say something, if it is truly as important as it appears to be that you say something, the right words. Living in Tantasasia. Neither Winthrop nor New Prospera. Nor Freedom. It occurred to him that in its current suspended state, the town was effectively nameless.”
The concept of Tantalasia, as elegantly enumerated by Whitehead, deeply explores the narrator’s morass. He knows that his old self is no longer valid, yet he is unable to reach a new conception of who he is. So he tolerates ongoing anxiety, the pain of knowing that he should ask the pretty girl out, but can’t, the itch that is his food sitting right on the counter while he’s starving. It’s a painful, stale way to live, and Whitehead provides an intimate look into it.
A view of Tantalasia is as much as we get out of Apex Hides the Hurt. Just as the story provides no redemption for its narrator, this novel provides nothing beyond an exquisitely crafted description of a commercial America run amuck. Apex is by no means a bad book, but it is a book that revolves in place, rather than evolving forward. The author of the superb John Henry Days has a staggeringly great book in him, but Apex Hides the Hurt is not it.