by Daniel Brown

The Apartment, a new novel by Greg Baxter, is a very compelling, beautifully crafted and written book wherein all the action takes place on one single day in an unnamed Eastern European capital, most likely but not necessarily, Prague.  The American narrator is a forty-one year old former Navy man with experience twice in Iraq: first in the armed services and second as an independent contractor: one follow the other, as the nameless man realizes the fortune he can make in Iraq (he watches video feeds from different battles and gets paid $1000 a day by the Army to analyze the information he sees; he knows that he is being overpaid, but understands that the Army wants to pay such huge sums, as long as they are even numbers…..

He is the new dropout, a man with a lot of money who can retire in an anonymous city where he knows no one, where he plans to read books indefinitely, go to coffee houses, meet random people but avoid personal connections and the like. Our man seems incapable of emotion, but he’s not suffering from PTSD, but rather from an existential despair that he hopes will lose its edge by the routines of daily living: he will not work again.

He meets Saskia, a woman who will help him find an apartment, and with whom he will spend this one day (and probably many others: I think that she moves in with him at the end of this long day, but that remains unclear as the narrator isn’t sure, either. Saskia, a brilliant if erratic woman, is full of enthusiasm for this city’s monuments to poets, various underground heroes from other wars and times, and she insists on showing him these things in the midst of a dreadful snowstorm.  Her passion is a counterpoint to his lack of affect, and as the two grow to like one another, we find ourselves hoping for a human connection to grow between them.  They eat, they drink a lot of coffee, she helps him to buy a new coat, scarf, gloves; they hook up with her beautiful friend Manuela; they take a lot of trams and buses to points of interest on their way to the appointment to view the apartment.  All he wants is a terrace, a
decent sized kitchen…..and a view (which is of a cemetery, a wonderful metaphor for his state of mind).  Echoes of Don DeLillo’s writing run through this very moving novel.  And we readers get an incredibly fine “tour” of this city, its people, cafes, food, squares, Christmas rituals and the like: it’s very clever of Baxter to integrate this kind of travel lore into his novel, and he does this quite successfully.

We are aware that our American narrator has done nasty things in Iraq , and this low key, almost non existence is partly a type of penance for him: if you don’t know anyone and live a nearly anonymous life, you can’t get into/cause more trouble.

Mental illnesses of all sorts have become the stuff of many a contemporary novel, caused by the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan (or both): Kevin Powers wonderful novel began this type of book, about two years ago, and Sebastian Juenger’s nonfiction War did the same , in nonficton.  Our fighting men and women are committing suicide at alarming rates upon their return to America: I recently read Sparta, by Roxanna Robinson, about a young man returning from four years in Iraq with a violent case of PTSD (the novel came out about three years ago, and has been underrated). The Apartment  goes after the state of mind of a soldier from a different perspective, but the endgame’s very similar: vanish; never reintegrate; live
under the radar.

But The Apartment makes us wonder whether or not this isolation is truly possible, much less desirable, so that Saskia represents every good and passionate thing about a young woman of considerable intellectual abilities who attaches herself to this man with ease and includes her friends in the deal. There’s the possibility of a real love story under the surface, and we feel our narrator loosen his grip on his fears and his past when with her.

The Apartment is a very strong and solid book, raising important questions under the rubric of
superior aesthetic moments: it’s an oddball book, but strong and sure and important.

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