The Apartment/Greg Baxter: Reflections and Instructions for Writers

Monday, January 20, 2014

When both Stacey D'Erasmo and Adam Langer review a debut novel in The New York Times and urge a reader toward the work, I pay attention. Stacey is one of the smartest critical minds around; I know this for a fact. Moreover, I learned about the art of book reviewing years ago while apprenticing (so to speak) under Adam at Book Magazine. More accurately, I watched him write great reviews while I wrote dozens upon dozens of the just so-so variety.

In any case, I bought Greg Baxter's debut novel The Apartment because it had tugged at both Stacey and Adam. Yesterday afternoon and evening, I read it.

It's the most electrifying bit of sustained stillness and near violence that I have held in my hands.

What happens? An ex-military man goes apartment hunting with a young woman in a blurry, probably European town during a snowy day. The details of the day are highly absorbed and precisely communicated. Here is the snow, here is the cold, here is the girl, here are they, together—not boyfriend and girlfriend, not father and daughter, not anything you might presume—and here is the bus they take, the roads they walk, the things they say. Descriptions with diamond points. Sentences that weather a world:

Here, in this city, intense joy and intense sorrow are extinct. The place is too old for that kind of naivete. Everyone here responds to these extinctions by opening doors for each other, or making room at tables—they are generous and polite. I admire this—to celebrate the extinction of hope with ritual and composure. To place coats on the shoulders of women. There isn't a thought left. There isn't a sentence. There isn't a human being. 
It's intense, surely, but it feels sequential, almost straightforward, except when the unnamed narrator tumbles back into the spaces he has left behind—a dirty war, a possibly selfish existence, unnamed crimes against.... Creatures like thoughts. Thoughts like creatures:
I was spending lots of time in museums, especially art museums, and one of the things I gradually became more and more aware of was a ludicrous but entirely spooky sense, which presumably no one else shared, that human beings are unwanted disturbances, that the various works hanging nakedly on walls, for instance, are desperate to evict the living, because to have to watch us plodding around them is torture, and that day it occurred to me that the same could be said for the Aeneid, doomed for eternity to be read by students, snobs, and imbeciles.
This Greg Baxter—how does he know what he knows? About violins. About the Iraq war. About the way a street light works? About mothers who mourn the death of their daughters? The Apartment is so incredibly grounded in the tactile and the known and so equally fantastical and strange that readers must submit to it; Baxter gives us no other choice. We want to know—desperately—if this man will get his apartment. We want to know if he'll be able to exist with his memories. We want to know if he knows more than we do about what it is to live with the truth.

I was not happy, initially, that no bookstore that I visited had a copy of The Apartment. I only reluctantly downloaded it to my iPad, for I'm still a real-book girl as much as possible. But at the end of my read, I found my e-book reward—a Q and A with the author, which is, my writer friends, as valuable as the novel itself.

Among the gems from that Q and A is this:

If an author resists the temptation to type his or her characters, those characters will usually contradict themselves and become vital. If the characters act consistently, they're useless or they're props. No character should fill space, and no character should have a defined role before they appear in a book—they should not serve a purpose. Janos could have been more or less important. Manuela too. They turned out how they turned out. Importantly, I think, a character is worth putting in a novel only if they are—or could be—worthy of being the main character of another novel. No character should ever be, by nature, minor.


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