If you’ve read enough Graham Greene, Paul Bowles or Robert Stone, you may think you know what’s coming. You’re ready for a shift, the moment when the calm mood will be shattered, replaced by something sinister, even violent. But though a sense of dread hovers over much of Greg Baxter’s lucidly written and astutely observed debut novel, “The Apartment,” that drastic change never arrives.
The novel is set in an unnamed city, one where “intense joy and intense sorrow are extinct.” The city and the locations in it are fictional, but they recall aspects of Vienna, Budapest and Berlin, where Mr. Baxter, who was born in Texas, now lives. There are streetcars; Christmas markets; a park with a zoo and a natural history museum; cafes with good coffee and rich, creamy desserts; outdoor stands where you can buy sausages served with sharp mustard and brown bread.
Our guide through this city is unnamed, too, but he is familiar enough: Stoic and cynical, yet literary and intellectually curious, he splits the difference between Jake Barnes in “The Sun Also Rises” and Ethan Hawke’s character in “Before Sunset.” He has moved to Europe to forget his past, but he spends long stretches of the novel engaged in the act of remembering.
Forty-one years old, he served first as a Navy officer on submarines, then as a reservist called up to Iraq where he worked in intelligence. After his tour, he started his own company, returning to Baghdad to set up I.T. networks and conduct computer surveillance, netting himself a fortune. The character’s sudden attainment of wealth is hardly unusual in the economy depicted by Mr. Baxter, with war and big business both conducted by remote.
Describing an old neighbor in America who worked from home, securing government contracts and selling everything from tortilla-making machines to Tomahawk missiles, Mr. Baxter’s narrator opines, it “seemed kind of insane to me that the very natural idea of wanting to be successful in order to create a comfortable life for your family had, here, taken such a bighearted, unassuming, funny guy and placed him in the heart of darkness.”
“The Apartment” takes place in a single day, and, appropriately, the novel itself is short enough to be read almost in real time over a leisurely afternoon and evening. We follow the narrator, who has been living in a hotel, as he tries to find an apartment. He is aided in this odyssey by Saskia, a smart, hard-partying 25-year-old economics student whom he met at a gallery opening.
There is an endearing effortlessness to their relationship, but “The Apartment” is no more a torrid love story than it is the sort of postwar espionage thriller it frequently evokes while depicting a 21st century in which American power has waned considerably. In the new world order, Mr. Baxter’s narrator is not so much a “quiet American” as he is an increasingly irrelevant American.
To relate what does happen in “The Apartment” might make it sound slight, a novel-length minimalist exercise. Mr. Baxter characterizes Camp Victory in Iraq as a place with “a stupefying lack of drama,” which proves to be an apt description of his novel’s plot as well.
The narrator goes apartment-hunting with Saskia; he settles on a place; he and Saskia meet up with her friend Manuela, who works for the central bank; the narrator buys a fancy winter coat that, according to an observer, makes him look like Adolf Eichmann, whose name suggests the banality of the evil our narrator remembers committing in Iraq; the narrator, Saskia and Manuela shoot pool; he and Saskia plan what they’ll eat for breakfast. When there is violence, the narrator is either remembering it, imagining it, or watching it from a far remove; when there is drama, it has usually happened in some distant past. But despite the lack of incident, the novel exerts a hypnotic force.
One of Mr. Baxter’s most entertaining and insightful sequences occurs when his narrator encounters a fellow veteran, a former Army guy named Early, who chews tobacco, speaks with a drawl and blasts the Oak Ridge Boys while tooling around in a black Range Rover. But midway in the conversation, Early drops the accent and turns off the tunes.
“I’m only messing with you,” he says. Turns out Early is a history buff who is a fan of “The Aeneid” and the composer Alban Berg, thus undercutting our expectations for a war vet character, just as Mr. Baxter continually undercuts our expectations for his novel.
And it is precisely this sort of subversion, along with the author’s shimmering prose, that makes “The Apartment” such a surprisingly compelling read and so apropos; it captures the mood of the current moment and what seems to be a new “lost generation,” one formed not so much by exposure to violence, as immunity to and alienation from it. Once upon a time, there was no place like home; in Mr. Baxter’s world, home, it seems, is no place.