A few years ago, Greg Baxter published his first book, a memoir called “A Preparation for Death,” in which he talks about his expatriate life in Ireland after his life in the United States had gone sour, with the end of a marriage and the failure of his first attempt at a novel.
Since then, Baxter has published his debut, “The Apartment,” in which an unnamed narrator reflects on his life as he walks the streets of an unnamed European city seeking an apartment. Not much happens here, which takes place over a single day, and I hope I don’t give away too much by revealing that he does buy a better winter coat than the one he had. But plenty takes place in short flashbacks.
The narrator, a 41-year-old ex-US Navy man, eaten up by self-loathing and prone to introspection, has made plenty of money working as a private contractor in Iraq. He left his desert home in the States about six weeks earlier to live in a cold city, but he’s not sure why he picked this cold city.
He’s living in a room at a hotel for people traveling on their own, but he wants to find an apartment with a balcony, kitchen, and his own bathroom. So, assisted by a young woman friend, Saskia, 25, the narrator searches the city looking for a place to live and a warmer coat in the early December winter.
While the relationship between Saskia and the narrator appears platonic, it is nonetheless complex, ambiguous, and odd. Saskia, who is a native of this unnamed country, reads Dante in Italian, taught herself Latin so she could read Virgil in the original, and spends half her life at parties. The pair met in a museum where they talked about art, books, and music. The narrator simultaneously wishes they could preserve their relationship and remain strangers.
This narrator is a body of further contradictions. He claims that he tries not to think about the past because for much of his life he existed in a “condition of regret, a regret that was contemporaneous with experience, and which sometimes preceded experience.” But thinking about the past is, of course, most of what he does.
He says serving in Iraq is behind him and he never thinks about it, yet he does in flashbacks told in half-scenes and longer scenes throughout the book. Whatever it is in music that makes people dance makes him want to stand still and listen. He carries cigarettes, but does not smoke.
Many of his memories are tumultuous and murky, and he doesn’t trust them. He’s lost his grip on chronology too, and forgets things. He seems a mystery to himself and others — one of his acquaintances believes he is in the CIA and tortures people.
During their journey through the city the narrator and Saskia visit the Christmas market, drink hot wine, meet up with another friend or two, and mingle with shoppers; they also encounter beggars and countless Arabs, Africans, and Roma whom everyone thinks fill “the place with stink and depravity.”
Light in plot and action, “The Apartment” succeeds as a novel of intense introspection, similar in style and substance to Teju Cole’s “Open City.” About one quarter into the book, Saskia recalls her father saying the function of a civil engineer is to “ease the flow of human misery,” and that is this narrator’s main task: easing his own misery by examining his own life and its truths.