If you're stopping by from Washingtonian magazine, welcome. For those who have not seen the May issue, I've written a 14-page article on the literary life right here in DC. (Note: For those heading to town for BEA, this article is a great guide to local authors, indie bookstores, and hot literary nightlife—and yes, we do have a thriving literary nightlife scene here, believe it.) Highlights of the article include interviews with Ed Jones, Alice McDermott, Jim Lehrer, and Chris Hitchens. There is also a wonderful round up of our local literati, talented writers that deserve broader readership. Check it out.
Online, the joint is jumping today over at the LBC. It's Ticknor week—a five-day dialogue/celebration of Sheila Heti's latest novel about a disappointed biographer.
And for those keeping score at home, here's a quick round up of the books we will be discussing over at the LBC in the coming weeks:
Today we're happy to feature a FotHB Report from our favorite literary stalker.
Quick. Think of something snappy. A name that will make you think you’ve just got to have whatever they’re selling. But it’s got to be just right. Make you think you’re happy, satisfied, all right with the world. And do it in a word. Two at most. Now go.
Welcome to the world of Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt and the “nomenclature consultant”—a guy whose job it is to name things—at the center of its pages. Not just products: not just the Apex multicultural bandage that promises to match any skin tone that has brought him fame and renown. This time, he’s been called in to name a whole city.
Hearing Whitehead at Politics and Prose—a bookstore that takes its independent status seriously—here in Washington, you get caught up in a second in that quickfire prose of the new book. Of particular note was the section he read where our main character is subjected to a newspaper interview where the journalist isn’t just writing the article in his head as he asks questions, it’s clear the story is already written. The journalist meets the marketer where both of them undo each other a little bit. It’s funny and fast and smart all at the same time. The audience laughs, leans forward, comes along for the minimalist ride of this prose, how he builds up and pulls down, humorously, the very forms of the things we take for solid around us.
It would be easy to think that this was just the way Whitehead writes. But then think back to John Henry Days, to some of those sentences that topple on top of themselves, that sound of a much different tenor, and that come at their own, necessary pace. And then there are the noir-ish sentences of The Intuitionist that give away and hide in the same measure. Something’s going on here that’s different book by book, which is one of the most exhilarating things about Whitehead’s writing: to realize that the whole of the thing is always not just about itself, but also about language itself. How do we shape it and why? How does the mindset and work of your character create the character of the whole of the book and how it sounds? This is far more than voice or any old trick taken out of the writer’s medicine cabinet, because what he’s doing on the whole, book by book, links together idea and fact and the ways we try to order the frenetic world around us. He’s not snotty about language, taking in detective genres, the publicist’s flak, the adman’s game. He even gets a good poke at the self-important language of the academy, a place that busies itself with donning acceptability on certain kinds of writing, deliberating over what language is allowed and what language matters.
The truth is it all matters, because all the language that surrounds us and barrages us is an inescapable part of the lived experience in our city centers and across the land. At Politics and Prose, Whitehead admits his “secret love for the business” of marketing, celebrating the “genius” and syllable music of the Plop-Plop-Fizz-Fizz campaign for Alka Seltzer. He talks about all those corporate names “floating around in our skulls,” citing NyQuil as an example, evoking “Nighttime. Tranquility. All the fractions of words that begin to act on you.”
So this question of naming things, he tells us, is bigger than any simple bandaid. When he talks about the essence of naming in the question-and-answer session, he asks, wisely, “What is the true name? What is the truth of things?” And then, later, he explains to the audience how he’s concerned with “what things are before they’re named and what happens when appellations are put on them.” These points become even more interesting in a book where the main character goes unidentified by name, the namer of things who is himself anonymous.
And what about that territory where we’re not even sure what the character looks like, how it’s far into Apex before we can say for sure that our unnamed protagonist is, in the words of another character, a “black fella”? Whitehead’s books aren’t about Race in that self-conscious-bucking-for-a-Pulitzer-Prize kind of way. But they are always deeply about the ways that we treat one another, what we hope for and expect of one another in this country, what we’ll say and what we won’t, all of which has everything to do with race and identity (and for which, he should, one of these days win that Pulitzer Prize).
When asked about his responsibility to writing about race, he says that it’s his job “to bring a new perspective to talk about race, history, technology…to make new work.” There’s a broadening of concerns now, he says, past the aftermath of the 70s Civil Rights Movement in which he grew up. And he gives us his own retrospective on his body of work with “What is a city? How do we live in the information age? What does a black hero like John Henry mean in contemporary times?” but also underscoring the necessity of addressing these concerns not as essay, but in story. (Although anyone who loves New York City or cities at large should run right out and buy a copy of The Colossus of New York—an intellectual-experiential travelogue of that critical American city—to see firsthand how accomplished Whitehead is as essayist as well.)
And of his next project? A novel, he tells us. Set in the 80s. Autobiographical. And of the four pages he’s written into it? “I dig it,” he says.
I, for one, dig Colson Whitehead and his words and the stories around them. That’s why I’m at the reading in the first place. Maybe Whitehead was born a hack, an adman, an elevator operator in another life. Who knows? What I do know is that I hear him when he writes that “the things you name go on without you.” And I know that his readers and everyone in the audience learn to trust this language, because he’s asking the hardest questions of it, getting to the places it starts, at the very forming of the word at the moment something takes on a name.