April 5, 2012

Greg Baxter: The Apartment

Posted in Baxter Greg at 8:00 am by John Self

Greg Baxter’s debut A Preparation for Death – a collection of essays masquerading as a memoir – made a big splash with me but not many others. It was bold, unignorable, serious and sexy (or sex-ish, anyway). For his next trick, his first novel, he has taken quite a different path.

The Apartment has the reader straining their ears from the title down. It is a book with a careful – and welcome – distrust of significance. It begins with shoes and ends with breakfast; why, it’s practically chick lit. It has a maddening, or tantalising, or delicious, refusal to be specific: the narrator has unnamed, his city is unidentified, and even structural and decorative traditions of the novel are absent: speechmarks, chapters. Novels like that are a tradition too, but it’s not one of those either. It is not a forbidding book, nor monochrome, and when details do seep in, they’re real, not invented.

Here’s what we know. A forty-one year old man, American-born (“when I was seventeen I left a town in the desert for a city in the desert”) has moved to an old European capital. He invented a reason to come here, just to give his journey an initial destination. Now that he’s here, he is “trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints.” He wants not to want anything, except somewhere to live, so he walks through the winter city with Saskia, a friend he met in an art gallery, looking for an apartment.

It’s strange, since we only met a little while ago, to be in a hotel room together, getting ready to search for apartments like we are old friends. We act as though we ought to have things to talk about, but we don’t have those things. We have fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance. Sitting together on the bed now as I lace up my boots it occurs to me how easily this intimacy could evaporate. Our relationship probably could not bear any conflict at all.

Sentences like these – real, modest, recognisable – are the essence of The Apartment. There is a very curious quality to much of it: something like the truth found in understated humour, although it is never actually funny. Baxter has the confidence to render his narrator’s thoughts unobtrusive, and his and Saskia’s exchanges often unenlightening – just like real conversations. “Is that dangerous? I asked once. I don’t know, she said.” “I thought the paintings were magnificent, I said, but I had a hard time explaining why.” (I am having the same problem myself.)

The absurdly right details accumulate, the sort that we don’t normally get about fictional characters. “I never had a taste for sweet things before, but now I do. Now I really like to eat rich, sweet, fruity, creamy cakes, and it doesn’t matter what time of day it is.” He is not passive, our man, but rather actively acquiescent. Faced with a persistent shopkeeper who won’t let him leave without buying something, “I let him win. From now on, I am going to let everyone win.” Some will find the plotlessness (or plotlightness: he buys a coat; I can’t remember whether he finds an apartment) boring. I didn’t. To me, the prose was such a source of pleasure that I was glad not to have the tyranny of a story driving me on; it would, anyway, have been entirely out of keeping with the character and his situation. His story is like the walks he takes through his adopted home: meandering, unrushed, exploratory.

The buildings here are all the same. You walk along one street, turn a corner, and you are on the same street. This is what the foreigner tells himself. The longer I stay here, though, the more I notice imperfections in the repetition. [...] You begin to notice that no two buildings are really alike. You begin to see that what you suspected was perfect repetition in an orderly grid is apparent repetition in an imperfect grid, and after a while you learn that what you once considered monolithic is infinitely intricate. And from here you begin to understand the vastness of the place.

We get to learn quite a lot about where our man was before he came here. Surprising contemporary information begins to rise out of the mist: is this the first novel to refer to Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks? (“You must tell no one about that,” says one local to him when he finds out. “Tell no one.”) Yet as much as offering an explanation for his actions, this information provides a springboard for digressive discussions with Saskia, or just with himself. To him everything deserves attention, from the wonder of perspective in art (“I had been born at a time when an understanding of optics was taken for granted, and when realism in art had already been born, perfected and exhausted”) to The Bridge Over the Drina to “the ballistic space of a pool table” in carom billiards.

The tone maintains this egalitarian interest: the form of the novel, its lack of speechmarks, question marks and exclamation marks, not to mention chapters and line breaks, means that each sentence must do its work unassisted. There is no trickery with the author detonating a joke or a twist at the end of a scene, no winks to the reader or sighs of self-satisfaction: it starts, it goes on, it ends. (Not that Baxter can’t turn on the effects when he wants to. “The woman fished a baby onion out of her cocktail. She threw her head back and held the onion over her open mouth as though it were a tiny little man and she were a giant lizard.”) There are novelistic ‘colourful characters’ but they are in the narrator’s memory, not here and now. The lack of obvious markers – is there a literary equivalent of the screen going wavy before a flashback, other than those changes in tense I never notice? – means that the slippage between present and past is subtle, anyway.

When we recommend a book to others, their first question is usually, ‘What’s it about?’ With The Apartment that question is both easy and difficult to answer. It’s about a man who leaves a war zone looking for peace of mind. (“A lot of the guys I met in Iraq were insufferable nerds, idiots, bullies or bureaucrats who could not function in the civilian world, where some degree of creativity is required. They all flourished in the military.”) It is about friendship, and the lines between people (“I wish we could preserve our relationship as it is now for a long time,” he says of Saskia. “I wish we could remain strangers”). It is about the sublimation of guilt. But trying to answer the question of what it’s really about – it’s not about, it is – leads me to want to fall back on my default defusing joke when prodded with such enquiries. What’s it about? It’s about 230 pages.

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17 Comments »

  1. Barbara said,

    Re: Greg’s Apartment Sasha should read Saskia…

    • John Self said,

      Oops, thanks Barbara! You wouldn’t think I read the book twice before writing this review…

      • Barbara said,

        Just reading book, only reason I was alert!

  2. Tom said,

    Lovely review, John, I can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. The premise and style remind me of two recent novels that I’ve found impossible to forget: Teju Cole’s ‘Open City’ (whose narrator is kept in perpetual motion seemingly to evade guilt or even self-knowledge) and Mathias Enard’s addictive one-sentence (yes, I know) ‘Zone’ (whose narrator is also on the run from a barbaric past in the military). It’ll be interesting to compare the three.

    I should also note here my debt of gratitude to you for bringing ‘A Preparation for Death’ to our attention. Even with the arrival of ‘The Apartment’, I’m not sure I’d ever have read it otherwise, and it’s become a book that I can’t bring myself to return to the shelves, since I’d be going back for it so often (and I’m just that lazy, apparently); like those classic works Baxter references every so often (Montaigne & co), I feel as if the book holds the answers to just about everything, more or less by allowing me to forget the problem I had in mind when I reached for it.

  3. [...] Self reviews Greg Baxter’s The Apartment. Posted in Reading Tagged with book review, greg baxter, john [...]

  4. leroyhunter said,

    I’ve met Baxter a couple of times (must be 4 or 5 years ago now) and by chance I passed him in the street on Thursday: we looked intently at each other (me more so, and I may well have narrowed my eyes) but I wussed out of talking to him.

    Anyway, I’ve just written (and then deleted) a long and very ungenerous reaction to A Preparation For Death, which I read last year in the spirit of scratching a persistent itch. This isn’t the place for that comment, but having read the book John I admit I’m surprised by your regard for the itinerant Texan.

    Will I read this? Almost certainly not. Shadowy Iraq backdrop? I cringe.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks Leroy. I kind of wish you had posted your ungenerous reaction to A Preparation for Death (though admittedly the world doesn’t need many more of those). Interesting that a book which was largely ignored or treated indifferently by the press is, in some quarters, being retrospectively lauded (by James Lasdun in the Guardian, and by Gerard Donovan in the Irish Times) – admittedly in both cases to make the point that they liked that book more than they do The Apartment.

    I might also turn your penultimate point around, leroy, and say that I’m surprised by your lack of regard for the book(s). Could it be that your personal antipathy for the itinerant Texan was at the forefront of your mind when reading A Preparation for Death? Coincidentally, and in a rare instance of the smack of firm government on this blog, I just deleted a comment linking to another blog mocking my review (people are free to say such stuff, but shouldn’t expect me to nod them through as they seek to promote it here), which was from a Dubliner. Judging from this person’s blog and twitter timeline, I can only assume that their serial obsession with belittling Baxter and his work comes from personal reasons. Perhaps Baxter had to leave Ireland, having alienated everyone he met so much that they cannot bear his books – which is not, of course, to question your own literary integrity, leroy, of which I have the highest opinion.

    Anyway, all I can observe finally is that I recently got sent a finished copy of The Apartment – previously I read a proof edition – and rather than put it away, I have kept it out and to hand, so tempted am I to give it a third reading any minute now. Go figure.

  6. Joe Phelan said,

    I liked Baxter’s “A Preparation for Death?” and reviewed it on Bookmunch. “The Appartment” seems to follow a different path and one I’d not expected Baxter to take. Still thats all the more reason to read it. Wonderful review by the way.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks Joe – I hope you like The Apartment if you do read it.

  8. Lee Monks said,

    He rubs people up the wrong way, this Baxter chap……I thought (as I mentioned at the time) that A Preparation For Death was a brilliant piece of work, precisely what’s needed, vital, risky, at times so slight-seeming that any remembrance of even the previous few pages seemed to evaporate (I can recall very little of it now: does that matter? Is the mnemonic nature of a book that important? Can a book be memorable without you having the slightest clue what happened in it? I think so) and that the author was doing something pretty important: there are enough Henshers and Selfs (not you, Will) about writing respectable rubbish. So I’m looking forward to this. Great review.

  9. Lee Monks said,

    Leroyhunter: you do surprise me. You have such impeccable taste…

  10. John Self said,

    “That is what I aspire to create: a book without moving parts.”

    An interview with Greg Baxter on The Apartment here.

    (I wish I’d thought of saying that about it. It’s just right.)

  11. leroyhunter said,

    Go figure indeed. After all, that’s what makes all this interesting…

    John, I think “antipathy” is a bit strong, but I wasn’t impressed when I met Baxter and his method in APFD almost demands I bring that impression with me to the persona he constructs for himself in the book. So it becomes a circular and (in my case, anyway) a self-defeating exercise. Was he “driven” out of Dublin? I have no idea, I’m not in “lit” circles; but regardless of my opinion of his work that would be a disgraceful outcome. I wouldn’t be surprised though if there was an element of Dublin and Baxter wearying of each other: for evidence of how this might happen I’d again refer to his first book. As for the piece you refer to, well that’s just bilge, surely? Hardly a substantive response to Baxter or your reviews. I take your point though about it seemingly epitomising a certain view of Baxter in Dublin, albeit it’s apparently written by a lonely and vindictive nutter.

    To be absolutely even-handed about APFD, I must admit there are good things in it and passages I enjoyed. Overall though I was disappointed based on the high praise I’d read – some of it is incredibly hackneyed, and Baxter’s loathing of his former self struck me as disingenuous and in fact self-serving. But anyway. If nothing else, it made me pick up the Penguin edition of Cioran a few weeks ago when I stumbled on it in the local, so given Baxter’s views of the book that should be an interesting reading dialogue (or trialogue?).

  12. sshaver said,

    New word: sex-ish!

  13. Roberta C. , Vancouver BC Canada said,

    I will certainly read this book. It sounds enchanting….Roberta C.

  14. [...] Greg Baxter: The Apartment “A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.” [...]

  15. […] Greg Baxter: The Apartment “A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.” […]


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