2012 was a big year for Iraq War novels. Some of the best works of fiction from last year, including THE YELLOW BIRDS by Kevin Powers and BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain, dealt with the repercussions of America’s involvement in the nine-year conflict that ended with the December 2011 withdrawal of troops. Greg Baxter’s debut novel, THE APARTMENT, is the shortest and quietest of the Iraq War tales. But it deserves to be ranked with last year’s titles.
One could be forgiven for wincing upon learning that the protagonist is an unnamed narrator, and that the city he has moved to from his hometown in America is an unnamed European city, although the city, with its cold weather and outdoor sculpture of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of seafarers, makes one assume that the setting is a Nordic or Baltic country. These absences are usually signs of a weak novel. But Baxter transcends the gimmicks. His intent may have been to suggest that his narrator could be any one of millions of Americans left disaffected and disillusioned by the war. If so, his strategy was a gamble that paid off.
"THE APARTMENT is a wise and elegant novel. The spare prose and absence of melodrama make its uncompromising portrait of war all the more devastating. This is one of the better war novels of recent years."
There’s not much plot to THE APARTMENT. Like Patrick Süskind’s THE PIGEON, another short novel about a middle-aged loner, Baxter’s story takes place over the course of a day. It’s two weeks before Christmas. The 41-year-old narrator has lived in his new city for more than a month. He likes the Hotel Rus, where he has been staying since his arrival, and likes the proprietors, Mr. and Mrs. Pyz. But he thinks he should move out and find an apartment. He befriends a 25-year-old woman named Saskia, who works at an economics research institute. She places calls to potential landlords on his behalf. “Maybe you should not tell landlords I’m American,” the narrator tells Saskia after her first few calls fail to yield promising leads.
The plot device of an expatriate’s search for an apartment is little more than an excuse for Baxter’s higher purpose. Through reminiscences and conversations, the narrator tells us about the past he is trying to escape. Early in the novel, he says to Saskia after he lights a cigarette, “[A]ll I do now is walk, and I don’t want to live an especially long time.” When he meets Saskia’s friend Janos at a café with waiters in red tuxedos and fold-out tables covered in oilcloth, the narrator tells him he wants to learn enough of the country’s language so that he can order food or get a haircut without being conspicuous --- a desire to be anonymous and never have to face questions about his identity, his nationality, and his role in the war.
He gradually reveals that role as the book progresses. We learn that he had two extended visits in Iraq. In the first, he was stationed at Camp Victory in Baghdad. “I led a four-man Forward Dissemination Element,” he says. “Our job was providing surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting intelligence to coalition air assets and ground forces.” But he returned to Iraq for a second stint, this time as a civilian contractor. He set up IT networks, conducted computer surveillance and tried to predict insurgent activity. He made a thousand dollars an hour during this second stint. “The way I estimated my fees for the Army,” he says, “was to dream up a figure that seemed unreal and add a zero.” He tells of obscure messages written on the roof of Saddam’s palace, and of witnessing skulls being broken and acid being poured onto abductees.
Sometimes, Baxter tries too hard for profundity. There are long discussions about art and aesthetics that are meant to juxtapose the beauty of artistic creation with the brutality of war. In one scene, the narrator attends a concert in which two teenage girls play the Chaconne from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2. After the concert, a professor says that the Chaconne “combines in a single spirit the most extreme ends of a man’s sacred and secular capabilities.” The narrator responds by telling the professor about the atrocities he saw in Iraq. Exchanges like these are obvious and heavy-handed.
Aside from occasional lapses, however, THE APARTMENT is a wise and elegant novel. The spare prose and absence of melodrama make its uncompromising portrait of war all the more devastating. This is one of the better war novels of recent years.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on December 13, 2013