The premise of The Apartment by Greg Baxter is straightforward. An unnamed American expat searches for an apartment in an unnamed European city. At the book’s start, the narrator leaves his hotel and heads into the city with local friend Saskia, who helps him search for permanent lodging. Over a single day, the book unfolds through the narrator’s stream of consciousness, slowly revealing details from his past. The novel’s themes and events expand from this principle, filling in like the snow that lightly falls throughout this cold and solemn text. The Apartment is successful in painting a portrait of a man struggling with a difficult past through slim and understated discoveries unveiled by his exposition. The book’s greatest success is it subtlety. It is also entirely elegant. I enjoyed every page.
The apartment is the driving force behind the narrator’s actions, and he and Saskia move toward it not entirely linearly, but deliberately. They pop into Christmas markets, stop for drinks, examine a fountain, and shop for a coat, all along their way to an apartment-viewing. The holidays add an element of warmth to an otherwise inhospitable winter, a sentiment that is echoed in our narrator. He is somewhat distant—apathetic and shut off—yet, thoughtful. He acknowledges, “It always seems a degree or two warmer inside Christmas markets” moments before his thoughts shift into darker territory:
Nobody in rich countries wants to face responsibility for the lives of people in poor countries. They just want cheap groceries. But now I am going on about something I don’t want to think about. Everything human beings can imagine has been thrown at injustice, and injustice just absorbs it, and enlarges.
Early in the book there is the discovery he is ex-military; that he served actively in the Middle East. References to being a “citizen” are offered by Baxter, reminders that there is a distinction between being a civilian and having served that is ever-present. Violence certainly clings to the text, though it is rarely explicit. In this way it haunts the protagonist, building in awareness throughout the book. The Apartment isn’t an observation on PTSD, nor is it anti-war, but the narrator’s central conflict regarding his part in the war (first in the Navy and then as a private contractor in Iraq) contributes to his characterization in a significant way.
Baxter’s use of time is notable. Even when the apartment is reached we learn about it through a series of flashbacks; out of order from the way you might expect. I love how Baxter achieves this. It gives the story a haunting quality. The sense that you are watching something take place that is orderly—thoughts are measured, there is a logical thread throughout, the search for an apartment provides an easy-to-follow trajectory—but events and themes focus and refocus along the way. “Everything I have experienced here—even our bus ride into town this morning—feels like it happened years ago.” And also: “As time diffuses, or my preoccupations with it ebbs, I have lost my grip on chronology.” When our narrator says, “I test tiny alleyways that wind away from bigger streets. I open gates. I crawl under small archways that appear to lead nowhere, but often take you to interesting spots” you get the sense Baxter is accomplishing the same thing with his story. Revealing big pictures and philosophies through small observations. It is an understated and refined style, and it is executed beautifully.
Though the book comes in just under 200 pages, it offers perspectives on art, politics, history, and style, layering the narrator’s discoveries with thoughts on culture. This, along with Baxter’s clean prose style, feels like something you can really dig your teeth into. One of my favorite lines is, “I have thought about art but I have not tested my thoughts.” Baxter calls into question our own ideas on philosophy, art, citizenship, and war throughout The Apartment, and while we might not all be grappling with the same conflicts as the narrator—to what degree do you belong to the human race when you’ve committed crimes against it?— our consideration of these issues feels essential by the book’s end.
Grand Central Publishing
Review by Kim Winternheimer