I’m from the desert—a town with a small population … I left the town in the desert for a city in the desert. Though I lived and worked elsewhere more than I lived and worked in that city, I always returned—each time for a different reason.
So begins to introduce the narrator of “The Apartment,” a novel by Greg Baxter. He begins on a note of anonymity and continues in that thread throughout his narration. If he were an object, he’d be a Muji handbag, without a logo and no instant way of telling his origin.
A laconic, brooding figure, he’s an American, who moved into a city in Europe. On a freezing Saturday morning, in December, not far from Christmas, he’s out hunting for an apartment, with the help of an idealistic young economist named Saskia, whom he met recently.
Out of the lobby of the shabby Hotel Rus, they begin a long journey that will take place by bus, streetcar, subway, and cab—and in stretches, by walking.
In all that time, he never once lets out where he is. Or what brought him to this place. In his effort to make himself truly invisible, he doesn’t even reveal his name.
He breaks his silence on his geographical position only to disclose that he’d spent time in Iraq as a U.S. naval officer and a civilian contractor.
As he moves through the city, he also undertakes another kind of trip—one down memory lane. His recollections of his past pop up in a deliberately haphazard order, as he’s lost his “grip on chronology.”
They come to him unbidden, as he stops to grab a fish sandwich or to eat a sausage and drink mulled wine at a Christmas market or to admire a fountain.
His search for a place to live in is also his quest to find a new home, perhaps.
“My reflection looks at me with equanimity, but that equanimity is not in me,” he shares. Of his homeland, America, he writes that he’s full of “hatred of the kingdom of ambitious stupidity, of the loud, gruesome happenstance of American domination.”
In the course of a single day, he takes us on an (unguided) tour of an abridged cultural history of the West by delivering observations on Vergil’s “Aeneid,” Bach’s Chaconne, invasion by Ottoman Turks, Piero della Francesca’s “Flagellation of Christ,” invention of the violin, the distinction between Renaissance and Baroque.
It could be because I arrived at this book by way of so many science-fiction books that I found it to be very slow, ponderous, and unriveting. Most people, when they realize, they aren’t relishing what they’re reading, they abandon it.
I don’t. I keep on reading. In the case of this book, I leavened some of its tedium, by cracking its setting as if I were playing a literary version of Pictionary.
“She points to a little entranceway in the side of a building on the far end of the square, with a blue U outside it.”
It was this clue that enabled me to decipher that Baxter is describing one of my favorite cities, the land of coffeehouses, schnitzel, and Mozart. The “U” is the signage of the Vienna U-Bahn.