By Heller McAlpin
12:25 PM EST, December 5, 2013
"The Apartment," Greg Baxter's absorbing, atmospheric and enigmatic first novel, unfolds in extended paragraphs without chapter breaks on a single snowy mid-December day in a fictional European city that evokes aspects of Vienna, Prague and Budapest. Its long, frigid journey into a long, sleepless night explores a man's uneasy relationship with his past, himself and a world in which violence is inescapable.
The book's unnamed 41-year-old narrator is a retired U.S. Navy submariner who has served two tours providing intelligence in Iraq — the first as a reservist, the second as a private contractor identifying insurgents for the Iraqi police, which made him a fortune. Intent on leaving both the United States and his past behind for good, he's "trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints." At once frank and unrevealing, he says, "I wanted to live in a cold city. I couldn't say precisely why I picked this one."
After six weeks in "the shallow, purgatorial waters of hotel life," he heads out into the cold on a Saturday morning to look for a furnished apartment with the help of a young woman named Saskia whom he met in the national gallery. They have "fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance," a polite companionship in which they discuss art, their unhappy childhoods and their fantasy ideal breakfast. He comments, "I wish we could preserve our relationship as it is now for a long time. I wish we could remain strangers."
As they traverse the icy city on foot, crowded buses, subways and taxis, the book tunnels into this intelligent, alienated and deeply disillusioned man's thoughts, which include memories of which he is not proud. We read in eager anticipation of shameful, heinous revelations and their attendant catharses, and of a blossoming love story. But Baxter subverts our expectations — sometimes frustratingly — and deliberately denies us the satisfaction of closure. Instead, his novel, with its steady, incremental snowfall and vague disclosures — "I had assigned death from a distance … I had only done harm" — slowly builds tension but leaves us to plow our way to our own uncertain conclusions.
Baxter was born and raised in Texas, but "The Apartment" bears the stamp of the many years he's spent abroad — in Berlin, where he currently lives, and Vienna, birthplace of his father and grandmother, and most notably in Dublin, setting of the mother of all single-day urban odysseys, James Joyce's "Ulysses." While not blatantly autobiographical like Baxter's first book — "A Preparation for Death," a memoir about (among many other things) his difficulties writing a novel — "The Apartment" does feature an expatriate's wide-angle view of America.
With its disorienting juxtaposition of the absolutely ordinary and the strange and vaguely threatening, the novel evokes the work of Franz Kafka and Haruki Murakami, while its oblique explorations of memory suggest a debt to W.G. Sebald. In addition to flickering recollections of his stints in Iraq and his unease at having "added evil to the world," Baxter's narrator's odyssey is punctuated by erudite digressions on subjects that include perspective in art, Bach's Chaconne and an encounter with a creepy ex-Army veteran who takes him to an ancient Roman military outpost, where he quotes Virgil's "Aeneid."
Many of these musings mesmerize, though some are weighed down by ponderousness if not outright pretension, such as his reflections on perspective: "Throughout its history, at least until it became untenable as a method of inquiry, the study of perspective seemed to be, among other things, a sign that human beings believed in an intellectual destiny that was contained in the intersecting lines of reality; by studying those lines we studied that destiny." Others disturb, including his unexplained estrangement from his mother or his cynicism about the routineness with which civilian contractors gouge the government because "The Army didn't trust you if your fees weren't preposterous."
We meet the narrator on what he says is "the eve of a life that I hoped would represent the entombment of the violence I have witnessed or imposed upon the world." Along with his memories, he has tried to shake his vitriol toward "the kingdom of ambitious stupidity, of the loud and gruesome happenstance of American domination." But, as he observes in this manifesto of alienation, "you can never escape who you are, never truly anonymize yourself." Baxter's provocative, unsettling novel is, among other things, about the inexorability of identity and "the immortality of violence."
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR.org and the Washington Post, and writes the Reading in Common column for the Barnes and Noble Review.
By Greg Baxter
Twelve, 195 pp., $24
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