For thousands of years, reaching all the way back to Homer, people have told about war by telling stories about war. But in 1918, even as Europe was still smoldering, Rebecca West published her first novel, “Return of the Soldier,” about a shell-shocked vet suffering from amnesia. It was a new kind of story for a new kind of carnage. A few years later, Septimus jumped to his death in Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” And in 1926, Hemingway wrote his finest book, “The Sun Also Rises,” a war novel in which war has been driven entirely off the page. Instead of battle scenes, he portrayed a stream of endless socializing rendered in understated sentences, pared down to striking simplicity, as a wounded vet struggles to go through the motions of what passes now for normal life.
Since then, any number of novelists have felt the importance of being Ernest, but not every echo of Papa’s stark, self-consciously restrained style carries the same power. In fact, one could argue that his influence has spread like mustard gas across certain fields of modern fiction, asphyxiating characters and leaving us with a lot of very finely crafted novels in which nothing is moving.
The latest example comes from Greg Baxter, whose first novel, “The Apartment,” ambles through a single December day in a European city. The city is never named. The narrator, a depressed Iraq War vet, is never named either, but he tells us, “I wanted to live in a cold city. I couldn’t say precisely why I picked this one.” Neither can I. Six weeks ago, he arrived from an unnamed American city with lots of cash, and since then he’s been living in “the shallow, purgatorial waters of hotel life.” When the proprietor asks him why he’s come here, he thinks, “I didn’t know. . . . I am trying to live without a preoccupation with endpoints.” Mission accomplished.
The narrator has a single friend in this city, a pretty, young economist named Saskia whom he recently met at an art museum. “We act as though we ought to have things to talk about,” he says, “but we don’t have those things. We have fallen into a swift intimacy of pure circumstance.” When she asks what he does for a living, he says, “Nothing.” And he means it. Over the course of the novel, he and Saskia wander around the city, eating, shopping and looking for an apartment. I won’t ruin the suspense by telling you what kind of tea he drinks.
Sitting in one clean, well-lighted place, he says, “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.”
Periodically, he reflects bitterly on his lucrative success as a contractor in Iraq. He confesses that he “assigned death from a distance.” He’s ashamed of his role in the war; the army’s waste and destruction disgust him. And so he has come here to be invisible, to escape a great black wave of regret by appreciating simple, pure things, like the trumpeter in a small Christmas market on the street: “A good musician treats a small audience the same way he treats a large one, with humility and grace. A good musician does not play for glory. He plays to thank fortune for his ability. He plays to honor his predecessors.”
Isn’t it pretty to think so?
Most of “The Apartment” is written in carefully modulated sentences appropriately laced with smart disquisitions on architecture and art as we’re led to infer the psychological damage of having “added evil to the world.” But what’s maddening about the novel is that it periodically tantalizes us with evidence of Baxter’s real talent: his ability to create tension, to tell, you know, a story. Even a sepia-toned memory of the narrator visiting his old girlfriend’s house is filled with anguish and pathos. And though nothing particularly dramatic happens in the flashbacks to his days as an intelligence contractor in Iraq, those scenes are frightening and evocative — entirely unlike the affectless noodling on the streets of an unnamed city. Sadly, the membrane between quiet depth and pretentious affectation is thinner than a French poet’s black turtleneck.
In the last paragraph, our narrator says, “I began to sense that everybody thought of me as a bit of tedium.”
You have to admire that kind of self-knowledge.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
By Greg Baxter
Twelve. 193 pp. $24