On the first page of Greg Baxter’s debut novel, The Apartment, an unnamed narrator tells us, “I wanted to live in a cold city. I couldn’t say precisely why I picked this one.” I smiled reading those two sentences. I felt the same way when I began this book. I wasn’t sure why I’d picked it up, having done so before I was asked to write this review. Its concept was alarmingly simple: a man comes to a cold and unnamed European city. He’s there for reasons that aren’t clear, even to him, and he’s looking for an apartment.
The novel begins quietly and the narrator conveys tension with simple pieces of information. He tells us, “I’m from the desert— a town with a small population. When I was seventeen, I left the town in the desert for a city in the desert. There were three million people in that city.”
Why would a man from the desert move to a city in the snow? Soon we learn that this man is an American and that he served in Iraq. But we’re given nothing more specific than: “I worked with a team in Baghdad that provided intelligence to troops that were fighting.”
At this point in the novel, I became skeptical and felt a bit cheated. I know where this is going, I thought, cue PTSD induced nightmare. If The Apartment were a movie, I would’ve leaned over to my wife in the theater and bet her a trip to the concessions stand and some Juju Fruits that the narrator commits some heinous crime against the citizens of this cold city … I was damn well certain of it. Make that Juju Fruits and a popcorn.
But that moment never came.
Instead Baxter continued to build tension by introducing characters such as Saskia, the woman who helps the narrator search for his apartment. Here and there we’re given hints of her painful past. “I am tired, she says. Saskia takes a lot of pills and goes to gigs and attends parties that last three days. She can’t sleep.”
Again it wasn’t long, maybe thirty pages in, before my faith in Baxter faltered once more. This all must be building towards something, I thought. I found myself waiting for the moment when Saskia’s buried trauma would induce her emotional breakdown. Surely this would land her in the narrator’s arms. I continued through the pages, just waiting for the saccharine scene of two broken people finding romance and, dare I say, completing each other.
Thankfully, that moment didn’t come either.
Instead, The Apartment proved to be a quiet and powerful read through and through. Baxter’s clean and direct prose generates its own momentum. He chooses not to create a tidy drama where characters are explained by their pasts. Rather, he creates something bigger and more true. The people in these pages feel real and as they progress, it takes on a wandering and disassociated form. The names of places are largely excluded and the story adheres to no formal structure. Alternatively, Baxter focuses on the specific: shopping for a new coat, and whole pages dedicated to the narrator’s musings on Baroque versus Renaissance versus Gothic architecture. If this last section sounds maddening it is, but always there, driving The Apartment forward, is the tension distilled from fully realized characters in close proximity with another.
Baxter’s greatest talents are on display in how he handles these understated interactions. Take for example when the narrator meets one of Saskia’s would be boyfriends. “I walk over, she introduces me to him— his name is Janos— and we shake hands. American? he says. That’s right, I say. Where in America? he asks. Delaware, I say. That’s what I say to everybody. He nods.”
Simple treatments like this give The Apartment its force and authority. When dealing with the theme of American resentment abroad Baxter delivers moments like the above with elegance. When dealing with the Iraq War, he never falters or bludgeons the reader on the head with tired modalities. He mentions the war sparingly and allows its wide shadow to cast itself over the book. This is honest. When addressing the war and the narrator’s relationship to its memory, it seems Baxter would no sooner introduce the clichéd veteran, wracked with PTSD and a sense of his own criminality, than he would introduce a Stetson brimmed Texan clopping his cowboy boots across the cobblestones of this ‘cold city’ to shed light on the perception of Americans abroad.
Greg Baxter has written a big book in a lean one, and he has written a book where everything is happening while at the same time nothing is happening. Put another way, the book succeeds. Admittedly, it is slow and challenging at times, and the reason for its success is difficult to pin down, but when finishing it, I felt satisfied, and, just like the narrator, “I couldn’t say precisely why.”