In some ways, Greg Baxter’s debut novel, The Apartment, pulls off a more grounded version of the recent Hollywood blockbuster Gravity: set over the course of a single day, a troubled loner embarks on a quest for home. Although the action is not nearly as fantastical, the experience of oscillating in no-man’s land along with the protagonist is quite riveting. Will this character find his home? Spoiler alert: Halfway through the novel he finds an apartment, pays the deposit, is handed the keys. So what?
The unnamed protagonist, who is also the narrator, smokes cigarettes, drinks coffee, buys a nice coat, and walks around an unnamed foreign city. That’s basically the plot. Yet, the story is fueled by a rousing first-person meditation on life, history, culture, and all that surrounds us. Greg Baxter’s first book, A Preparation for Death, an autobiography, was a dramatic exorcism of sorts. It dealt with a string of frustrations in his life, including the failure to publish three novels. After he got the venting out of his system, he was able to re-focus on a new work without all the inhibitions of a writer trying to make it.
“This was a book I sat down and wrote in a fever,” Baxter, a native Texan, explains over Skype from his home in Berlin. The simple concept for The Apartment started with the title. “I find myself wanting to write about European landscapes, but because I’m American I can’t just pretend to be German or Irish,” says Baxter. “I have to find a way to get an American into this landscape.” This day-in-the-life story traverses past and present terrain with great fluidity, even though we never learn the full occasion for the anonymous narrator’s arrival in this anonymous city. Eventually it’s revealed that he was an American contractor in Iraq haunted by the violence he—in some unknown way—participated in. He made a lot of money and retired from his old job.
Mysteries float around each bit of his back story, including his military service and the cryptic desert town from which he came. Baxter’s restraint for such background details is juxtaposed with his attention to the pulse of the present—the cold sting of snowflakes, the Communist-era architecture, the mulled wine of a holiday market. The world comes alive through the fresh eyes of a transplant burrowing into his surroundings: “The longer I stay here, though, the more I notice imperfections of repetition. I notice a laneway here or there that is small and winding, a shortcut. Or an alley that leads to a street that it seemingly shouldn’t, which tells you that your inner compass has failed… .And from here you begin to understand the vastness of the place.”
Baxter says he was trying to get at the most essential form possible by writing in a sparse, crisp way: “In a book in which characters are travelling across a frozen city slowly street by street, the one thing that cannot be suffered is overwriting.” There are no chapter breaks in this story, and there is no chronology to the narrator’s surfacing memories. The blurry feel is also due in part to how Baxter included many outside sources within the narrative. “There’s a very high level of pastiche in the book, and the book is in many ways a series of pre-existing pieces that I’ve finely strung together with fictional transitions.” A section of the book that describes life at Camp Victory is directly (and with permission) lifted from an email exchange with a friend of Baxter’s who was in the Navy. Baxter even borrows details from the U.S. Navy website, the BBC and other Internet findings on topics that he became curious about while writing. “Storytelling digressions became meaningful to the story at hand,” he says of how the passages on submarines to the meditations on Byzantine art all fit together to create an authentic state of mind.
When the narrator is at danger of going into too much of an inward spiral, such as an overly long reflection of a conversation with a composer on the virtues of Brahms’ Chaconne, Saskia, a local woman who helps guide him through his apartment search, pulls him back up for air. Along the way, she curates the muddied history of buildings as she carefully nudges him with questions about his past. In return, she shares fragments of her own disenchanted life. It is never fully realized if their friendship will be sustained beyond the day, or if it will become romantic.
“I’ve never been entirely convinced that a change is something that is necessary in a novel,” says Baxter, debunking a traditional story arc where characters face conflict and are changed by the consequences. “I’ve lost faith in that approach to storytelling, or maybe I never had it.” Baxter learned this lesson through writing his autobiography. After he examined two years of his life, he realized there were no great changes that yielded epiphanies. In The Apartment, the main character is on a journey that is burdened with the shame of his past, but his past is never discernible enough to be reconciled. We don’t know if by finding an apartment—if by embarking on this practical step in establishing a new life—the narrator will escape what haunts him. And we don’t know if that’s what he would want. For this thoughtfully concise story, the many unknowns underscore the satisfaction of simply going about one’s day.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in the Boston Review, Fence, American Letters & Commentary, and elsewhere.