2B or Not 2B?: On Ana Menéndez’s “The Apartment”

By Joy CastroJuly 29, 2023

2B or Not 2B?: On Ana Menéndez’s “The Apartment”

The Apartment by Ana Menéndez

“EXILE DID NOT work out exactly as our parents had planned,” novelist Ana Menéndez once explained in the foreword of a Cuban cookbook. “For their American children, Cuba is little more than a fairy-tale land of perfect fruit and blue hills. Every year the island and whatever promise it once held for us slips farther out of reach.” In her new novel, The Apartment, characters grapple with the pain of that elusive dream, which scholar Isabel Alvarez Borland and others have thoroughly charted as part of the Cuban American literary tradition of political exile, nostalgic longing, and survival—or despair. “Suicide is our one great national pastime. Our Cuban curse,” one character in The Apartment declares.

Menéndez’s established place in the canon of Cuban American literature is further solidified by this new book, set in an art deco building in South Miami Beach. Showcasing Menéndez’s signature sensuous language, dreamlike imagery, ambitious experimentation, and political awareness honed by her decades as an award-winning journalist, The Apartment is a tour de force by an author working at the peak of her powers. While probing and honoring Cuban American historical particularity, The Apartment demonstrates that no one segment of the world’s population has a monopoly on suicide’s particular pain, much less upon the anguish of exile. In The Apartment, Menéndez pushes expansively against any one group’s purchase on a haunted status. Her narrative not only explores Cuban American lives but also deploys characters whose homes range from Argentina to Honduras to the Czech Republic, along with non-Latinx US characters who hail originally from Texas and New York. She insists upon the importance of human community, inclusively construed, and proactive care for nature and each other as a stay against devastation.

Menéndez’s reputation was already assured by her 2001 fiction collection, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, with its Pushcart-winning title story, as well as by her debut novel, Loving Che (2003), and the well-received collection of inventive short fiction Adios, Happy Homeland! (2011). (Full disclosure: Menéndez, whose work I teach and admire, endorsed my novel about 19th-century Cuban Americans in Key West, and I am grateful. I do not otherwise know her.) The Apartment traverses the rich ground Menéndez has worked for decades: the complicated psychic and social terrain of Cuban American émigrés, whose particular brand of culture shock and nostalgia is complicated by Cuba’s long, vexed political relationship with the United States—the tensions of which well preceded Fidel Castro, as Ada Ferrer has amply argued in her Pulitzer Prize–winning Cuba: An American History (2021), but have only been exacerbated by the decades of political hostility and mistrust since Cuba’s communist revolution.

The Apartment plumbs the depths of existential, life-and-death questions (the titular apartment, the central setting of the book, is niftily numbered 2B, as in “or not to be”). And, like her second novel, The Last War (2009), which is set in Istanbul, Baghdad, and Afghanistan and draws upon Menéndez’s background as a journalist overseas, the latest novel’s reach is global, offering a sharp critique of neoliberalism and US empire.

In a beautiful turn, too, Menéndez opens her narrative with Indigeneity, restoring to literary view Miami’s inhabitants who long preceded Spanish conquest. In so doing, she problematizes the dominant Western concept of linear time. Elegiac, the novel begins with a scene not long before the moment of colonial conquest. An unnamed woman gathers turtle eggs for dinner and gauges the threat as a “snake undulates past.” To the Indigenous woman, “time is ripples on the water’s surface, concentric circles that form and re-form.” Menéndez immediately establishes time as a supple substance, as recursive, a thing of echoes and traces, the eternal return. “A serpent coils” are the first words of the book, and we later hear time variously described as “spooky and fickle. Not arrow, but snake,” as a substance that “coils around” a character, as “reticulated, like that skeleton of the tiger python […] in a London museum.” The ominous promise that the Indigenous tribe’s “three souls—eyes, shadows, reflections—will be left to wander without rest,” moreover, gives rise to the possibility that the third-person narrative point of view that controls most of the book’s chapters is in fact an Indigenous ghostly presence, “someone here to record the fact, this unseen eye” quite different from that of the omniscient narrator of traditional European (especially British) novels.

Menéndez’s narrative then ricochets forward to the 20th and early 21st centuries to observe the various inhabitants of 2B, a single apartment in South Beach, over several decades, chronicling Miami’s (and the world’s) cultural upheavals by exploring the seeds of personal and political violence in the characters’ lives as traces of their acts surface and resurface across the years. Chapter titles mark the resident and the date, orienting the reader toward character and time. “Sophie, 1942” and “Margot, 1984,” for example, show sheltered young women awakening to the brutal realities of war—and to the disturbing roles their own husbands have played in large-scale violence. Readers see how the men’s controlling violence at home intensifies as wars escalate far from Florida’s shore.

Several of the chapters feature protagonists engulfed by mourning. The titular protagonist of “Eugenio, 1963” mourns his one-time lover, the real-life Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona, as well as Eugenio’s own mother and the lost way of life wealthy Cubans enjoyed before Castro’s Cuban Revolution. Eugenio’s mother was a performing pianist, his father an art dealer and collector, their home in El Vedado filled with paintings—familiar enough general territory, to be sure, in postrevolutionary Cuban American literature, but fleshed out here with lively detail. In “Susan, 1988,” shattered by the death of her military husband, the eponymous character anguishes over how to tell her young daughter about his disappearance somewhere in the Central American wars perpetrated by the United States.

Italicized interstitial chapters feature various maintenance workers whose reparative labor on 2B recalls “Time Passes,” the middle section in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), in which domestic workers clean and maintain the Ramsay family’s holiday home while World War I devastates the family and Europe itself. In one of Menéndez’s interstitial interludes, a young Honduran mother’s experience blooms to vivid and tragic life, her separation from her five-year-old son a consequence of the very wars Susan’s husband fought.

In these intimate tales that transpire upon the same small stage year after year, decade after decade, Menéndez draws swift links between the micropolitical and macropolitical, critiquing the United States’ many depredations abroad, from Vietnam to Central America to the Middle East, and limning their devastating effects at home. It’s a bravura move, constraining the novel’s setting to such a small space—a single apartment—while exploring whole continents, centuries, and conflicting political histories. Yet Menéndez pulls it off, disrupting ordinary, learned perceptions of space and time. We see a world in a grain of sand.

Menéndez’s oeuvre is now substantive enough to afford her the occasional self-referential wink, as when the narrator of an italicized interstitial section sets the scene and then observes, “It sounds like the setup for a Cuban joke,” the narrative basis for Menéndez’s iconic and frequently anthologized Pushcart Prize–winning story “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd,” which scaffolds itself upon a classic joke structure to deliver a devastating punch line of truth.

Roughly two-thirds of the way through The Apartment, the structure alters, shifting from short, tightly paced chapters focusing on dyads (usually heterosexual couples, often in crushingly unequal and destructive relationships) and narrated in a close third-person limited point of view. By contrast, the final chapter, “Lana, 2012,” runs to 84 pages and is told in what initially appears to be the same third-person point of view but then shifts slyly to first-person narration by a most unusual narrator—making readers wonder who has been narrating all along.

It’s a striking narrative jolt that could have been a misstep in lesser hands, but Menéndez again pulls it off, situating Lana—who, after a traumatic loss for which she feels guiltily responsible, has arrived in Miami and is spiraling downward—among a community of care within the apartment building. An array of varied and lively characters offers her different forms of guidance, nourishment, and kindness—gifts Lana does not want. Whether she can ultimately accept their care or not—whether she can decide “2B” rather than to punish herself with annihilation for her own implication in larger systems of violence—lies at the core of her tale.

Lana’s existential dilemma resonates with earlier narratives in the first part of the book. In “Isabel, 1982,” a beautiful and intellectually curious 18-year-old refugee is kept (in every sense) in the apartment by her married lover, a controlling artist her father’s age who “handle[s] her roughly” and uses her as his muse, leaving behind for the next inhabitants of 2B “a nude so luminously painted, the desire in the brushstrokes so palpable, that it is almost pornographic.”

In the long final chapter, Menéndez echoes but reverses this gendered dynamic when Lana paints from memory a portrait of Milo, the lover for whose death she feels partly responsible. Yet unlike Isabel’s exploitative lover, Lana willingly bears the knowledge and pain of moral responsibility: “‘I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. I’m sorry.’ The two luminous eyes stare back until Lana cries out and covers her own.” She acknowledges and accepts the subject’s returned gaze.

Time coils; time is a serpent; what happened before returns in different forms. The only question is whether we can learn and change—as individuals in private relationships; as a young, militaristic nation acting out its colonizing dreams upon Indigenous land and on the world stage. Can we relinquish the brutal and illusory dream of empire, of power over another?

Early in the novel, the despairing protagonist of “Sandman, 1972” is a lonely and haunted Vietnam veteran whose wife has left him. One dark night on the beach, he almost succumbs to the lure of suicide by drowning: “Another step. Deeper, the water to his waist. To his neck. To his chin. He tastes the salt.”

Suddenly distracted by newly hatched baby turtles heading mistakenly across the sand toward traffic, Sandman begins urgently to collect them and throw them into the ocean. Other nighttime beachgoers see him and rush to help, forming an impromptu community devoted to preserving life and nature. In a passage that invokes the book’s earliest images of time, Sandman opines to a baby turtle, “‘It’s all a fiction, baby. None of this is real.’ He opens his hands and listens for the splash. The water moves away from the creature in concentric circles. ‘All the same, you dumb fuck,’ he shouts, ‘this is where you belong.’”

With its earned valorization of the tenacious power of human community and care, The Apartment makes its readers the same promise.


Joy Castro teaches Latinx literature and creative writing at the University of Nebraska. She is the author of seven books, including One Brilliant Flame (2023), a novel about the 19th-century Cuban anti-colonial insurgency in Key West.

LARB Contributor

Joy Castro is the award-winning author of One Brilliant Flame (2023), a historical suspense novel about 19th-century Cuban insurgents in Key West; Flight Risk (2021), a finalist for a 2022 International Thriller Award; the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (2012), which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home (2013), which have been published in France by Gallimard’s historic Série Noire; the story collection How Winter Began (2015); the memoir The Truth Book (2012); and the essay collection Island of Bones (2012), which received the International Latino Book Award. She is the series editor of the Machete series in literary nonfiction at The Ohio State University Press and edited the anthology Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family (2013). She is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.


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