The Apartment by Greg Baxter. Penguin UK. 240pp., £12.99.
An unnamed man walks around an unnamed European capital city. He befriends a local girl, Saskia, who acts as traveling companion, translator, and tour guide. He searches for an apartment; views one, likes it and takes it. Snow falls.
As précis go, this one seems scant to the point of inconsequential. A summary of any book necessitates a harsh whittling-down, a gutting and filleting that all too often leaves authors feeling the bare-bone remains do a cruel disservice to their work. The blurb to Texas-born Greg Baxter’s debut novel, The Apartment, evinces the ultimate hard-sell: stripping a bare-bones plot, such as it is, to an even leaner synopsis, and making it appear nourishing. It doesn’t work; the book looks markedly uninviting. But it is worth persevering. The Apartment is one of those novels that delights in its deception—minimal at first glance but in actual fact a trove stuffed full of haunting imagery, tumultuous thoughts and clever wisdom.
Right from the beginning the narrator informs us that he is from the desert. The city he has moved to and been resident in for six weeks is freezing: “I wanted to live in a cold city.” Why this one, he is not sure. We read and accumulate the clues he drops to guess where we might be: he stays at the Hotel Rus run by a Mr and Mrs Pyz; he meets people called Fritz and Janos, and the aforementioned Saskia; he visits a former-theater-turned-bar called Chambinsky; the city is vast and the country’s economy bad; street-side vendors sell fish sandwiches and there are many Christmas markets. Baxter, currently based in Berlin, has appropriated certain German customs—residents in this city hold their thumbs to signify luck, tips are not left on the table but included when you pay—but it is safe to assume his setting is an amalgamation of many a metropolis. Our narrator is an Everyman anywhere.
As the city slowly accrues definition, so too does this narrator, albeit a hazily. He is 41 years old, apolitical, unable to speak the language of the country and not looking for a job—”retired” he says at one point. He is American but feels “I was born to hate the place I came from.” Baxter imbues his foreigner with key credentials that mark him forever the outsider, no matter where he is. He hears a trumpet and says “Whatever makes people want to dance makes me want to stand completely still. This is how I appreciate good music.” He sits in a café and witnesses a man attacking a girl in the street, and while everyone around him stands or rushes outside to help, he stays seated and doesn’t move.
With both instances it would be tempting to label him an unfeeling automaton, a continuation of that line of literary existential anti-heroes who are both shunned by society and seek exclusion from it—think Ernesto Sábato’s Castel or Camus’ Meursault, the classic étranger. But as Baxter takes us back to his protagonist’s past, revealing his previous military career—a stint in the Navy followed by a posting in Iraq, then a job there as a civilian contractor—we realise that although he is aloof, and definitely strange, he is too much a man of action to play the tortured, angst-ridden thinker.
It is with such flashbacks that Baxter excels. The Apartment describes a day in the life of an anonymous character, but this narrative strand spawns a succession of wild deviations. Banal quotidian routine engenders richer recollections, anecdotes and even alternative histories. Our man buys a coat and scarf and ruminates on hell and hatred and an encounter with a fellow American who inspires him to read Virgil; a trip to an art gallery results in a riff on art history and perspective; a taxi ride through the city, in which he feels “exceedingly tranquillized,” reminds him of the similar sensation of “falling into nothingness” when travelling in a convoy from Baghdad Airport to the International Zone. These digressions enlighten and mystify—one minute informing us of life aboard a submarine, the next enumerating the merits of Bach’s Chaconne—but are always vividly presented and serve as subtle counterpoints to the main “events.” More importantly, Baxter has learned from Sebald that any kind of narrative branch-off must be a neat segue, not a contrived add-on. He resists the impulse to flag up the big themes, or usher us away on detours comprising portentous or edifying prose.
Our protagonist spends a large amount of time walking throughout the book. “Wandering” may be more apposite, both on his feet as peripatetic flâneur and explorer, and in his head, his thoughts rambling in response to everything he sees and hears around him. (This mental rambling is strengthened by the narrative’s structure: no quotation marks, chapters or page breaks, just one long, fluent fusion of speech and thought.) Saskia, his companion, offsets his individuality with a degree of normalcy. After meeting by chance, the pair of them have “fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance.” Throughout, it teeters on a brink, with Baxter skilfully hinting at will-they-won’t-they consummation, while simultaneously rendering their friendship so fragile it could crumble at any moment.
With all that walking, however, it is only natural there should be the odd misstep. Some short passages are filled with imagery that is either overwritten or over-realized. Take the following:
He seems like an unstable fissure in the fabric of reality, a wild blackness, expanding in the 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 in the universe would crash in upon us, and burn and pulverize us, and the powder that remained would drift slowly into the stars.
So runs a description of a man running for a train. Even for an attempt at hyperbole it is too full, too busy. The burning paper idea is excellent but is then marred and buried by the ensuing cosmic nonsense. It is as if Baxter is not sure enough of his descriptive ability and feels the need to harness one, supposedly superior, image onto another to magnify it. And yet this description, just as colorful, is spot-on:
It is incongruity that creates perception, and perception, real perception, is always something violent and free. You plummet through cloud and wind and a diminishing light toward a darkness you never reach, and which, anyway, vanishes as the mind stabilizes, and the outer shell of self reconstitutes, and life continues.
Baxter is likely to divide his readers with these forays. Reviewing the book for the Guardian, James Lasdun singled out this passage as being “verbal bombast.” If it is bombastic it is positively so—overblown rather than bloated—and providing much-needed lyricism, however rich, after those (deliberately) prosaic navel-gazing accounts of street-walking, flat-hunting and coat-buying. Less contentious is one single line, or better, thought, of the narrator early on in the book. He reflects on the dangers of smoking but decides it would be pointless to quit as “I don’t want to live an especially long time.” Notwithstanding the silly sentiment, he has said elsewhere that he is “trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints,” and after plumbing personal nadirs in Iraq (“I hated America, and I wished that it or I did not exist”) is relieved to depart with his life intact, “out of rocket range.” Even if he does have a new, more negative mindset, we prefer our heroes or anti-heroes to either embrace life or be plagued by suicidal doubt, not sit inactive on the fence pondering an early get-out.
Thankfully, these are mere blips in an otherwise absorbing and inventive tale. Slender but significant, what The Apartment lacks in action and consequence, it more than makes up for with its helter-skelter trains of thought and its treatment of complex themes—disorientation and the quest to fit in, cultural difference and diversity, not to mention America’s standing in modern times. We are fortunate to have the novel at all. Baxter’s first book, the memoir A Preparation for Death (2010), dealt with the alcohol and anger-saturated years he spent in Dublin as a failed novelist, and the “campaign of personal sabotage” he waged upon himself. After a bumpy ride he managed to conquer his self-pity, channel his passion and hone his craft. The Apartment—snugly compact but at the same time amazingly roomy—is the accomplished result.
Malcolm Forbes is a teacher and freelance essayist and reviewer. He was born in Edinburgh and currently lives in Berlin.
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