Snow is falling on the cover of Greg Baxter’s The Apartment, and it falls throughout the story, pillowing the architecture of an old, unnamed European city, dampening sound, numbing things. It makes a hush. That’s the effect of Baxter’s novel, too—to muffle certain thoughts and memories that the narrator would rather bury. The narrator’s state of mind is as fragile and temporary as a snowdrift, while the misgivings beneath it are hard and sooty like a Gothic church.
The narrator is a forty-one-year-old American who doesn’t speak the local language. Rich and aimless, he’s trying—over the course of the single day in which the novel takes place—to rent an apartment. He has one friend, Saskia, a twenty-five-year-old party girl who seems jaded with the city and happy to make a pet project out of this odd, despondent foreigner. Having just met each other, they have “fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance.”
Early on, the book is full of exasperatingly mundane details, like the particular creaking of the elevator in the narrator’s hotel, and the stamping of cold people on a crowded city bus. But the banality of these moments is their point: the narrator is trying, fiercely, to focus on the here-and-now, because the only alternative is to be alone with his thoughts. Eventually, like ice calving, these mental defenses fall away, and we find what’s underneath. He was in the Navy. Special intelligence work in Iraq. He “assigned death from a distance.” Now, starting over in a foreign city, he wants to achieve “the entombment of the violence I have witnessed or imposed upon the world.” The book slides forward on this tension between the quotidian plot and buried trauma. Baxter sends the narrator down tight alleys of memory, where a step in any direction could be dangerous. Crisply and plainly written, the novel is a single chunk of text, with no chapters or line breaks. Flashbacks open up like fissures underfoot.
More often than not, what triggers the narrator’s dark reveries is a sustained consideration of art or world history. In an old European city, it’s understandable that a tourist would make travel-brochure observations about the use of perspective in Italian paintings, the differences between Renaissance and Baroque architecture, or the glories of a Bach composition. But our narrator, agonizing over his deeds in Iraq, senses a personal accusation in any discussion of civilization and humanity.
According to the historian, with whom I spoke after the tour he gave, in a little café across a small square from a little Romanesque church, which he said was the oldest operating church in the city, Baroque architecture was the first grand diminishment in human evolution in the West. He said that humanism was the victory of man’s inner desire to be stupid in order to escape pain and to feel surprise, so that the drive to re-establish classical literacy and eloquence had been made impossible under the Catholic Church, which was doomed, in architectural expression, to be nothing more than a naïve triumphalism, populism, and a retreat from intellectual honor—a retreat that would cost man everything, that would send human history spiraling into the abyss that would ultimately lead to modernity, from which there has been no escape.
Rather than chuckling at this kind of rubbish, or snapping a photo and moving on, the narrator feels implicated somehow. He seems to believe that his wartime activities are partly responsible for whatever downfall mankind is going through. We come to realize that he is crippled by an impossible desire to atone.
The Apartment belongs to a small cohort of recent novels in which the horror of belonging to a society at war is sublimated in an anxious discussion of world history and masterworks of art. J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence is one of these novels, as is Ben Lerner’s outstanding example, Leaving the Atocha Station, and I think a case could be made for including Alexander Maksik’s novels, You Deserve Nothing and A Marker to Measure Drift. All are written in brisk, unflashy language that suggests emotional and intellectual honesty. They aim to capture the minute quiverings of dread that conscientious people in western nations feel every day. War and terrorism have turned us, for better or worse, into global citizens. They have brought out the worst in our governments and a base selfishness in ourselves. For these novelists, the only meaningful response is to prostrate ourselves before history and art—the kind of art that humbles you and make you reconsider your relationship to your fellow human beings. Art poses the questions that war is too dumbstruck to articulate. (According to a recent article in Guernica—Guernica, of all places, with a name like that—no one is writing novels like this anymore.)
In the UK, where it was first published, The Apartment was criticized for being dour, self-important, and out of its depth. And it’s true, to an extent: certain passages are so opaque that they become nonsense, like this description of the narrator viewing a busy highway at night.
The sensation of suddenly noticing not only that the scene was more dark than light and more still than twinkling, but also that the darkness was far more intense than the lights, was like closing your eyes and opening them to discover that anything beyond what you perceive is attainable only in death.
Whereas the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station immediately doubts his own assertions, the narrator of The Apartment is determined to wring a small drop of worldly wisdom from his every fleeting thought. I found Leaving the Atocha Station terribly unfunny and sad, at first. I think UK critics made a similar misreading of The Apartment. Baxter’s narrator can be hilarious, especially when he’s infuriating. He has a stated policy of never giving high-fives because only the worst Americans do that. Like an action movie hero, he’s sick and tired of being really good at killing people, and he’s determined to get out of the game. He’s not so much a well-rounded character as a piece of our national psyche made flesh.
In one of his reveries, the narrator of The Apartment feels a flash of pity for his old neighbor, a man who made a fortune selling overpriced goods to the US military but lost his family and his happiness along the way. “And it seemed kind of insane to me that the very natural idea of wanting to be successful in order to create a comfortable life for your family had, here, taken such a bighearted, unassuming, funny guy and placed him in the heart of darkness.” That’s the tragedy—and occasionally the bleak humor—of The Apartment. The narrator is a horseman of the apocalypse trying to be the catcher in the rye. After all his self-flagellation—staring at a cathedral or sitting through a classical music recital can be a kind of punishment, too—this American fighter is ready to commit the ultimate heresy: “From now on, I am going to let everyone win.”
– Brian Hurley