An author brave enough to dispense with plot and a traditional narrative is no doubt aware that he has given himself a huge challenge, especially if that author is American. Although it may not necessarily be harder to write a nonlinear memory novel like MUNICH AIRPORT, Greg Baxter’s follow-up to his excellent 2013 debut THE APARTMENT, than a more straightforward work, it’s harder to convince the typical American book buyer to read it. If you’re determined to complicate matters further by writing a grim nonlinear memory novel set in Europe, then your chances of finding an audience are even smaller.
But it’s not impossible. An outstanding novel will find appreciative readers. That is what happened with THE APARTMENT. Writing instructors will warn you to avoid many of the techniques Baxter employed. He had an unnamed narrator. He set the action in an unnamed European city. The story jumped back and forth in time and didn’t have a traditional plot. But the novel, about an Iraq War veteran who tries to find a residence in his adopted city, was a mesmerizing experience, largely because of the intense emotions and vivid depictions of military conflict. As I wrote for this site, THE APARTMENT is an uncompromising portrait of war. The spare prose and helter-skelter storytelling were well suited to the tale Baxter had to relate.
"Baxter does know how to make satisfying music, as we saw in THE APARTMENT.... MUNICH AIRPORT has many fine moments, especially in such scenes as the one in which the narrator has to identify Miriam’s body."
Unfortunately, they don’t work quite as well in MUNICH AIRPORT. Although the basic story is powerful --- a thirtysomething American expatriate living in London travels to Germany to claim the corpse of his sister, who died in Berlin three weeks earlier --- the dramatic tension that made THE APARTMENT so moving is missing.
The unnamed narrator of the new novel is a marketing consultant who once worked for a supermarket chain. He was married, but he and his wife split up years earlier. He and his 70-year-old father, a widower and retired professor of European history, have been summoned to Germany to claim the remains of the narrator’s sister, Miriam, who died alone of malnourishment. A US consul named Trish is with them at the airport. They await a flight to Atlanta, but, like all flights out of Munich, their plane is delayed because of thick fog.
The airport scenes are a framing device for Baxter’s real purpose, which is to present flashbacks that depict the family’s history. For much of the novel, Baxter undercuts the tension by drifting away from scenes before they deliver a dramatic payoff. In one flashback, a German policewoman calls the narrator while he is in a meeting in London to tell him that his sister is dead. But then the narrator goes back to the meeting without reflecting on what he has learned. He and his colleagues finish the meeting and go out to dinner. In another scene, Baxter moves away from rising tension to describe in great detail a visit to a Klimt exhibit at a museum.
Late in the novel, the narrator explains to Trish why he loves Alban Berg’s music. (As in THE APARTMENT, Baxter writes beautifully about music.) He says that Arnold Schoenberg’s pioneering use of the 12-tone scale was his attempt to reawaken modern music. Berg was Schoenberg’s most famous student but differed from his teacher by creating “a music of dissolution, profound indistinctness, and of restraint and of melancholy. And Berg makes you wait.”
One could argue that Baxter tried to write this novel the way Berg wrote music. But Berg’s music has more emotion than almost anything Schoenberg ever wrote. MUNICH AIRPORT is Berg without the emotion. Combine that with indistinctness and melancholy, and you have a less than satisfying reading experience.
The good news, however, is that Baxter does know how to make satisfying music, as we saw in THE APARTMENT. Despite its flaws, MUNICH AIRPORT has many fine moments, especially in such scenes as the one in which the narrator has to identify Miriam’s body. There are lovely small touches that define character, such as when Trish buys the narrator’s father three pairs of shoes to replace the pair he soiled because she doesn’t know his size. One hopes that Baxter’s next novel is a return to the narrative mastery he displayed so beautifully in THE APARTMENT.
Reviewed by Michael Magras on January 30, 2015
- Publication Date: January 26, 2016
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Twelve
- ISBN-10: 145555796X
- ISBN-13: 9781455557967