Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Apartment" by Greg Baxter

Greg Baxter's debut novel, The Apartment, is a terrifically written, somewhat meandering book that both is and is not about what you think it is.

In an unnamed European city (although some reviewers have guessed this is Prague, Baxter said the novel's setting is an amalgamation of several different cities), an unnamed American narrator is planning to meet his friend, Saskia, to find him an apartment, as he had been living austerely in a formerly elegant hotel since he arrived. The narrator is in his early 40s, a former Navy sailor who had served on a submarine in Iraq and then returned to that country as a defense contractor. But he doesn't like to talk about the past, because of the things he did while he was in Iraq.

"I could fill the silence by talking about the past, but I try not to think about the past. For much of my life, I existed in a condition of regret that was contemporaneous with experience, and which sometimes preceded experience. Whenever I think of my past now I see a great black wave that has risen a thousand stories high and is suspended above above me, as though I am a city by the sea, and I hold the wave in suspension through a perspective that is as constrained as a streak of clear glass in a fogged-up window."

The novel takes place over a one-day period, although the narrator finds himself reminiscing on a number of encounters he has had with people throughout his life, both after arriving in this city and in his life before coming to the city. It is around Christmastime, and winter has the city in its thrall. Snow falls throughout the day.

The narrator and Saskia travel throughout the city, on foot as well as by train, bus, streetcar, and taxi. They stop at cafés and bars, shops and outdoor holiday markets, tourist attractions and remarkable architecture. They encounter several of Saskia's friends, including the misanthropic Janos and the pretty yet flighty Manuela, and his being an American makes him more interesting and more loathsome to some. Throughout the day they spend much of their time both talking and not talking, about art, culture, history, their families, and at times the narrator is willing to answer basic questions about his military service and where he made his money.

"Saskia can move quickly from being very cool to being very funny. It makes me think she's not trying to be one or the other. I wish we could preserve our relationship as it is now for a long time. I wish we could remain strangers."

The narrator has spent much of his life trying to disengage from connections and commitments despite his work history. And although he is reluctant to let anyone know too much about him, and loves the lack of permanence that hotel living allows, he looks forward to losing himself in the city and having an apartment of his own.

While in much of the novel the pair is on the hunt for an apartment, the plot frequently veers off topic, as the narrator remembers people he has encountered, including his closest childhood friend back in America, as well as several instances during his time in Iraq. While many of these reminiscences happen without warning or connection to what is currently happening, my guess is that they occur because the narrator suddenly encounters something that triggers a memory or sensation.

This is a very short novel, only about 210 pages, but it is very weighty. It is so much more than I expected, more complex than a simple search for an apartment. It is a book about relationships, about avoiding your past but knowing that it shapes you, about trying to remain disengaged while simultaneously engaging. And more than that, it is a paean to immersing yourself in a place, in its culture, its history, its people, and its beauty.

I really enjoyed Baxter's storytelling ability in this book, even if I wished it had stayed on course a little more than it did. While the vagueness of the setting and the narrator's life was intriguing, I would have enjoyed a little more specificity to flesh out my experience. But in the end, this is a powerful and tremendously compelling story that I am really glad I read, and I can't stop thinking about it.

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