The name that sells the thing

The Branding and Freedom in the Market Economy conversation between Colson Whitehead and Calvin Baker happens this Friday, at Lolita, at 7 p.m.

In anticipation of the event, here’s an excerpt from Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt.

He came up with the names. They were good times. 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 them 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 good times. In the office they greeted each other with Hey and Hey, man and slapped each other on the back a lot. In the coffee room they threw the names around like weekenders tossing softballs. Clunker names fell with a thud on the ground. Hey, what do you think of this one? 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.

It was the kind of business where there were a lot of Eureka stories. Much of the work went on in the subconscious level. He was making connections between things without thinking and then, bam on the subway scratching a nose, or bam bam while stubbing a toe on the curb. Floating in neon before him was the name. When the products flopped, he told himself it was because of the marketing people. It was the stupid public. The crap-ass thing itself. Never the name because what he did was perfect.

Sometimes he had to say the name even though he knew it was fucked up, just to hear how fucked up it was. Everyone had their off days. Sometimes it was contagious. The weather turned bad and they had to suffer through a month of suffixes. Rummaging through the stores down below, they hung the staple kickers on a word: they -ex’ed it, they -it’ed it, they stuck good ole -ol on it. They waited for the wind.

Sometimes he came up with a name that didn’t fit the client but would one day be perfect for something else, and these he kept away from the world, reassuring them over the long years, his lovely homely daughters. When their princes arrived it was a glorious occasion. A good name did not dry up and get old. It waited for its intended.

They were good times. He was an expert in his field. Some might say a rose by any other name but he didn’t go in for that kind of crap. That was crazy talk. Bad for business, bad for morale. A rose by any other name would wilt fast, smell like bitter almonds, God help you if the thorns broke the skin. He gave them the names and he saw the packages flying over the prescription counter, he saw the greedy hands grab them from the candy rack. He saw the names on the packaging printed over and over. Even when the gum wrappers were bunched up into little beetles of foil and skittered in the gutters, he saw the name printed on it and knew it was his. When they were hauled off to the garbage dump, the names blanched in the sun on the top of the heap and remained, even though what they named had been consumed. To have a name imprinted along the bottom of a Styrofoam container: this was immortality. He could see the seagulls swooping around in depressed circles. They could not eat it at all.


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