JANUARY 15, 2014
I CAN’T SAY I envy Greg Baxter. His debut novel The Apartment bears the unfavorable burden of having to wash off the taint of his first book, an uneven and often rancid memoir of literary failure, A Preparation for Death. The logic is syllogistic: if you’re forced to write about your travails as an aspiring novelist in your first book, rather than simply publishing a novel, then you may not have the makings of a talented novelist.
So to say that I was happily surprised when The Apartment turned out to be a true gem of stripped-down, unpretentious realism would be an understatement.
Set in a wintry, unnamed European city that alternately resembles Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Berlin, The Apartment follows an American narrator through a single day’s search for the eponymous abode that will house him “probably for a long time.” A former Navy submarine officer in his forties, we know little about our narrator other than that he made his wealth as a contractor in Iraq and has flown to Europe from his home in the American desert on a whim, intent on exiling himself “in a cold city.” Rather than give us details on our narrator’s mysterious past, the novel describes his travels through the city in the company of Saskia, a young economist he met at the National Gallery, who has become his guide, translator, and real estate broker; a friend bound by the “swift intimacy of pure circumstance.” They visit cafes, ride the bus, wander leisurely from park to store to bar. A plot, as far as one exists, is confined to apartment hunting, and even that is resolved two-thirds of the way in.
Like an engine starting on a cold morning, the novel takes a while to warm up. One expects, in the manner of Ian McEwan or Graham Greene, some violent event to set things in motion, but no such event occurs. Baxter’s true accomplishment is that he succeeds at investing the reader in his story without such contrivances. Woven into the narrative are long flashbacks – primarily about the man’s time in Iraq, but also a long interlude about a terminally ill college-age friend’s early days in the cold city – as well as riffs on Baroque music, violins, and the history of perspective in art. The Iraq sections are astonishingly well done, and the man’s history as a Naval officer feels almost exactly right to the former Naval officer who happens to be writing this review. Moreover, the man is not some troubled vet afflicted with PTSD, nor a cipher for all that went wrong in Iraq: he is a military man who now finds himself adrift. That he would exile himself to a European city feels true to the character, and he resembles more than a few vets I have known in my day. He does feel guilt though, and it’s amorphous and variable enough that I wish Baxter had delineated its source a little more clearly. The man’s chance interaction with a fellow veteran midway through is one of the finest sequences in the book.
Baxter’s portrayal of the man’s relationship with Saskia is satisfying in its complexity. By standard novelistic convention, one expects the relationship to be consummated by narrative’s end, but Baxter rightly eschews this route, giving only a hint of sexual tension in a scene set in Saskia’s apartment. They pal around, meeting Saskia’s friends – the gorgeous Manuela and prickly Janos – along the way, enjoying simple things like having tea at an outdoor Christmas market or purchasing an expensive jacket at a department store. That one wishes to know so much more about Saskia, a woman who keeps thousands of photos on her phone of “crumbling doorways and rusted gates,” shows how well Baxter has done his job: the man, for all his newfound companionship, has come to Europe to be alone, and the distance – the foreignness – that separates he and Saskia isn’t about to vanish so easily. While we may learn bits and pieces of Saskia’s background, she exists as the man knows her – a partner of pure circumstance.
Baxter is no great prose stylist, but where in his first book his inclinations to flex his literary muscles yielded sentences and passages of ghastly involution, here he has chosen to work within the limits of own talent. The result is lucid, often hypnotic and, at times, even transporting. He keeps his sentences short, his adjectives limited, his pacing leisurely. The paragraphs are long and there are no chapter breaks, yet his slavish attention to realism and acute observation means this is no mere minimalist undertaking. His cultural observations are routinely spot on. His description of a European blues band – “They take it seriously, but the more seriously they take it, the more absurd they become […] there was an emptiness where inheritance ought to be” – is recognizable to anyone who has frequented any number of Berlin bars.
Only when he tries to extend beyond this register does he occasionally go off the rails, his attempts at literary profundity often jarring in effect and nonsensical in content, as in this description of a man rushing to catch the subway:
He seems like an unstable fissure in the fabric of reality, a wild blackness, expanding in a way that paper burns if you light a piece of it in the middle, and through which, if it reached us, the whole weight of time of the universe would crash in upon us, and burn and pulverize us, and the powder that remained would drift slowly into the stars.
General rule: if you ever have to evoke “the whole weight of time of the universe” to make your analogy work, you might be overreaching a tad. Thankfully the number of such passages can be counted on two hands.
On paper, The Apartment is a novel that shouldn’t work: the protagonist too bland, the narrative too slight, the pacing too slow, the backstory too clichéd, the prose too spare, the mood too cool. Yet Baxter is able to decant from what would normally be a toxic slurry something pure, holding in tension elements that alone or in improper balance would prove poisonous. The novel is certainly not without its flaws, but these are easy to overlook when the whole is built on the granite foundation of humility, a quality absent from Baxter’s memoir. It is to his great credit (and our reading pleasure) that he learned his lesson before writing this novel. The Apartment is a humble book, succeeding on its own terms, and being all the more affecting for it. I’m glad to report my syllogism from earlier was incorrect: Baxter has the makings of a talented novelist after all.