The protagonist of Colson Whitehead’s briskly existentialist third novel is a nomenclature consultant, which means that he receives money to name things like pharmaceuticals and toys. The book’s title comes from a bandage manufactured to color coordinate with pigments other than Caucasian. The narrative alternates between flashbacks to the events leading up to an awards ceremony honoring the year’s nomenclature highlights, after which he has a toe amputated and quits the firm, and the second-chance commission he receives to name a town formerly known as Winthrop.
Is the missing piggy a metaphor? Consider that writing novels is sometimes likened to running marathons, whereas short stories are sprints. And what about that one word that gives a consumer product its life? (Sometimes it’s not even a whole word but a single character. When automotive clients demand a name to go with “100,” he gives them a Q, and the Q-100 SUV hybrid is born.) Maybe that’s the high jump. Either you can do it or you can’t. Anyway, they’re all harder to do without a toe. Unlike track and field, however, literature thrives on limitations.
There’s something else that the protagonist lacks other than that toe, something Whitehead never names—namely, a name. Beyond being a particularly appropriate condition for this fellow, sharpening the psychological torment described with painful but never maudlin precision, the absence slyly evokes the unnamed narrator of Ralph Ellison’s
Invisible Man, the novel that established the identity issues with which Whitehead grapples.
Like his novel The Intuitionist and imaginative essay collage The Colossus of New York, the flashback sections take place in New York City, and his establishment of the “bat-winged and freaky” midtown office scene is scarily familiar to those of us who go there five days a week. The small town doesn’t come to life quite as vividly, aside from the Hotel Winthrop (“a good place to make a bad decision”), with its malevolent bartender and psychotic chambermaid. Conceivably, this failure belongs to the protagonist, who struggles and ultimately fails to grasp the essence of the place he’s been hired to name, but it nevertheless drains some energy from a product that wants to be nimble and zippy. Attractively titled and sleekly packaged, this is a book best read in two or three sittings, by the same logic ordaining that a Band-Aid should be pulled off all at once.