An unnamed narrator spends a snowy pre-Christmas Saturday in an unidentified European city. He’s in the company of a young woman, a native who’s helping him find an apartment so he can abandon the cheap hotel where he’s been living. That’s a fair summary of the action in the foreground of Greg Baxter’s slim first novel—so you may guess that plot is not its strength. But if your taste runs to novels that deeply and methodically explore the workings of one character’s mind amid an intensely realistic atmosphere, add The Apartment to your reading list.
Saskia, the narrator’s companion, works at an economics research institute by day and “takes a lot of pills and goes to gigs and attends parties that last three days.” She’s someone with whom he’s “fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance,” but there’s nothing sexual about their liaison; if anything they’ve transcended that to connect on a deeper plane.
Although Baxter’s novel is rooted in the streets of the gray, urban setting, his narrator, in his early 40s, spends almost as much time rooting through a past he says he tries not to think about as he does describing his intermittent success at acculturation. At the midpoint of his life, he’s served as a submarine officer, moving on from there to service in Iraq, where he had “assigned death from a distance,” only to return to Baghdad as a private contractor, engaged, he says, in a computer surveillance business that “made me a fortune.” All these experiences fueled his “hatred of the kingdom of ambitious stupidity, of the loud and gruesome happenstance of American domination.” The novel features effortless time shifts, including one especially moving encounter with the mother of a deceased high school friend. Sandwiched between the narrator’s encounters, present and past, are discourses on subjects as diverse as Renaissance architecture, perspective in art, Bach’s “Chaconne” and the history of the violin, all of which add texture to the story.
In an interview, Baxter observed that he “wanted to write . . . something profoundly simple in its conception but that could achieve a level of complexity, suspense, and purpose through details, subtlety, and suppressed intensity.” He’s succeeded in doing that here. As hushed as the snow that blankets the city through which its characters move, this meditative story should find an audience of thoughtful readers.