Skimming slowly and deliberately across the surface. The Apartment, by Greg Baxter.

September 17, 2012

Greg Baxter, The Apartment. London: Penguin, 2012.
Reviewed by Jennifer Mitchell

The cover of this book tricked me – it was somehow suggestively warming – the title giving an immediate sensation of somewhere cosy, personal and stylish – a safe retreat from the cold, snowy city and the glacial harbour depicted in delicious greeny blues. The reviewers descriptions of the novel tricked me too. It was supposed to be about a man and a woman looking for an apartment in a cold European capital – the present tense action all confined to one day. It sounded cosmopolitan and romantic, maybe an exploration of urban history, the search for home and experiences, a shared adventure of exploring a city and weaving together the threads of a new relationship.

Yet, it wasn’t quite any of those things at all. What happens in this book isn’t much – there’s not a great deal of plot -being mostly digressions and descriptions of minutia, and it initially appears to be a first person narrative of a traveler in a strange city, feeling his way through an expanse of time minute by minute. At times he is drawn to longer reflections which convey to readers recollections of the past, while the narrator tries to keep warm on the buses, trains, bars and streets he travels on and through on the way to buy a coat, to eventually arrive to see the apartment Saskia has circled in the paper. But then you realise after quite a while what this detail, this minutia, this skimming across the surface is all about, and what this deferring and delaying perspective is temporarily obscuring.

What I began to enjoy – after I’d settled in to the slow rhythm of the narrative, which incongruously didn’t appear slow as so much was being described in exquisite detail that there was this impression of speed, but then you realize that you’ve read two or three pages of descriptive prose and only a moment has passed – was the lack of urgency about everything. It felt as though Baxter’s unnamed narrator was experiencing something very few people get to enjoy these days – the lack of necessity to move, to go, to work, to talk, to make decisions and choices. It was like an endless holiday. And then you find out it’s not a holiday at all, but an escape. The narrator explains the unusual form and style of the narrative quite early, without us realizing:

Whenever I think of my past now I see a great black wave that has risen a thousand stories high and is suspended above me, as though I am a city by the sea, and I hold the wave in suspension through a perspective that is as constrained as a streak of clear glass in a fogged-up window.

Regret shapes this character’s perspective, regret ‘which sometimes preceded experience’ – and this regret has altered his sense of a right to belong, his sense of self as a citizen of his homeland, his sense of worth as a person who deserves a home. It is the regrets of the past which have made him constrain not only his view of the past, but also of the world through which he travels in the present. The future doesn’t even get a look in. Mainly, the immediate moment takes centre stage, the immediate moment is stretched into something which appears more significant than it is, but then, finally, it sometimes isn’t more than just a stretch of time observed indifferently.

The wine at Christmas markets can be way too sweet, and it can make you feel sick, but this wine is pretty much perfect. The snow blows all around Saskia, and around the huts, and up in the sky above the church. I switch my mug from one hand to the other, which has been warm in my pocket, so I can put my cold hand in my pocket. The wine goes cold quickly, so you sip it for a bit, until you half finish, but then you must gulp the rest.

The nature of this man’s regret emerges bit by bit, and he is reluctant to tell us – the constituents of that black wave hanging over him are discovered to be many, but mostly associated with his role as a U.S. Naval submariner, deployed to the conflict in Iraq, and later as an independent intelligence contractor. Quite late in the book, the narrator describes how he confessed his regrets to a music Professor he has met at a recital in the city a while before the day of looking for the apartment. Why tell the details of his shame to this Professor Schmetterling, and not Saskia, the local woman who seems to have tuned in so naturally and receptively to the timeless present which the man inhabits? It takes a long discussion of music, and violins, and Bach, and the excruciating contradictions of the West as a force of relentless destruction which also, incongruously, reveres beauty in all its forms, for the ‘psychic wall to crack under the weight of Schmetterling’s strange, calm generosity’:

…I had assigned death from a distance, co-ordinated land and air attacks, missile strikes, and that I had, for a reason that is still beyond explanation but was, until then, the most necessary thing I ever did in my life, returned to Iraq alone. Had I intended to make restitution? … Or was Iraq the only place in the world where I could find some equilibrium – where the world hated me as much as I hated it and myself, where I could live in the safety of never-ending hatred.

But here, in the cold, icy city, he no longer wants to dwell on the past, or on the nature of humanity which reminds him of what people are capable of doing to one another. ‘Everything human beings can imagine has been thrown at injustice, and injustice just absorbs it, and enlarges.’ His reduced perspective through the small aperture of clear glass on a foggy window is a choice, a necessity, a survival mechanism which he applies as much to himself as the the outside world. And this perspective shapes the flow of the narrative, causing the diversions and digressions, the laboured-over observations. And it hides, somewhat imperfectly as the narrative eventually shows, that which he no longer wants to see or be required to respond to – but in place of depth, feeling, involvement, caring and responding with emotion, is the mundane. So he sees the mundane in the best light he can possibly see it, and shows through his engagement with it a curiosity about the ways things and objects can remind of connections to past things, experiences and people. He has to tell the story to us because that is what he is there to do, even though it’s obvious he doesn’t want to, but has to, and so it comes out reluctantly drawn shred by shred from the seconds of the day as they slide slowly past.

But then, the title bothered me also – what was the end goal of this slow-motion day which went from Europe to Baghdad, to the U.S. and back again to the slushy, freezing streets of this anonymous city – where and when would he find the apartment, and when he got there, would something be able to tie him to an idea of home which would rescue him, bring him and Saskia to some moment of union to disperse the sustained deferring?

Alas, no. If you are reading for comfort it’s hard to find. Although there are small pleasures to savour briefly along with the narrator, such as the moment he puts on a luxurious, outrageously expensive and perfectly fitting silver cashmere coat. But there is no moment of union, no homecoming for this reluctant story teller with so much to say. The apartment is found, the rooms, the fittings, the balcony, the view over the adjacent cemetery, the woman showing them around are all beautifully, but solemnly described. He even imagines himself there romantically, hopefully, but when he takes possession of the key and moves his things in, he and Saskia, who appear to like to be together for no particular reason above their comfort with one another, cannot stay in the apartment and go out again into the cold. It is another deferral, another delay, another restless movement away from the discomfort of whatever the apartment could come to mean to him if he let it.

They leave the apartment to meet Saskia’s friends for dinner, and Saskia remembers something she must show him – a stairway in the city where all poets must come to compose a poem about the stairway, and with it she tells him the story of the original poet who came to realize his own profound unworthiness when walking down that stairway, meeting the eyes of a beautiful woman he would never be able to love. Once a poem is composed, the city’s poets feel they become citizens of the city.  An earlier anecdote is recalled – an historian, also a city tour guide who dared to tell the real, grim, flawed history of the city to tourists. He took tourists into ‘the heart of the crisis the city was, all around them, quietly expressing, locked inside the pretense of imperial majesty, reluctantly inhabiting the intimidating forms of absolute power’. The historian was abused, heckled, so returned to the Disney version and didn’t give up his job in disgust, because he was a ‘citizen’. These parallel stories of disillusioned men, and the idea of citizenship and what it seems to entail from someone who feels his or her duty to uphold the values of citizenship, lead us to feel something like pity for our guide through what this city, and the apartment, represent for the lost soul.

And when we get to the end of the last anecdote, the final description of the final recollection, it becomes all too clear that this man is escaping everything that comes with being an American, all the patriotism, the national pride, the intimidating absolute power, even, and more particularly, the arrogance that a soldier must carry with him or die too quickly. This is a man who has abandoned his country, his identity, his past – he feels he doesn’t deserve to be a citizen any longer, or else the notion is too contemptible to warrant aspiration – that, or he himself is too contemptible to deserve the comfort, the safety and belonging which home can confer. Contempt for what America is doing in Iraq, contempt for the way he dealt out death, a contempt which returning later as a civilian to make restitution did not erase.

This essential point is laboured over and retold with many variations, but each iteration has the interest imbued by a deeply talented writer, and a somewhat jaded storyteller. The convolutions and back tracking, the sustained sense of being held suspended in the moment for much longer than one feels is justified, adds to the atmosphere of guilty, lazy, distracted escape, which isn’t so bad a place to rest in for the reader who has demands clamouring beyond the pages. It’s not a nice place for the storyteller, overall, but he really is trying his best to enjoy whatever comes along, to avoid for as long as possible the glance upward to what he knows, awaits.

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