The Apartment (2012) by Greg Baxter
In my quest to read more contemporary books, I recently came across this slim and lovely novel about a day in the life of an Iraq war veteran trying to make a new home in an unnamed old European city. We never learn the narrator's name, only that he was born and raised in the southwest, joined the Navy, fought in Iraq, returned to that country as a contractor, and then lonely and sick of the violence that he had witnessed, escapes to another world.
Like Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill (Jan 28), The Apartment will suck you in and make you read it in one gulp without ever realizing that the hours are passing and you have things to do. BUT WHO CARES about those "things"? This book doesn't release you until the last page, and even then you're left thinking about all of the issues it raises about war, violence, identity, loneliness, and the reinvention of the self.
The novel spans a single day, during which the narrator and a woman he met at a museum (Saskia) go apartment-hunting. Saskia is just there to help- a longtime resident of the city, she is interested in helping the narrator find a nice place to live, most likely because, as the narrator imagines, she likes feeling needed. Despite their frequent physical contact (linking arms while walking, helping each other through the snowy streets), we are never told that they're anything more than friends. The way in which they stick with each other for an entire day, though, even when they don't need to, suggests that both are looking for some sort of fulfillment, something that will let them feel wanted and even loved.
With each new experience, the narrator offers up a memory- of his childhood, his time in Iraq- that he uses to try to understand what led him to flee the United States for a city that still retains its post-war aura. At times, he veers off into the evolution of perspective in art, the history of Baroque architecture, the foundations of Western music. Everything, no matter how seemingly incongruent to the present endeavor of finding an apartment, is incorporated into the narrator's attempt to piece together what had been destroyed within him by war.
The writing is masterful and the tone is tightly controlled, never wavering, like the narrator making an effort to keep himself together. Does The Apartment make me want to read more Baxter? You BET it does.