Arab Today, arab today the apartment by greg baxter
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The Apartment by Greg Baxter

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Arab Today, arab today The Apartment by Greg Baxter

London - Arabstoday

Greg Baxter, a Texan living in Berlin, embarked on his literary career with the intention of becoming a great southern novelist; the heir to Flannery O\'Connor and Barry Hannah. To that end he put himself through creative writing mills of various kinds, emerging (as most people do) with a novel nobody wanted to publish. Seething with resentment, he left for Dublin and spent seven months revising, only to have the book rejected once again. At this point he took stock, reappraising his ambitions and motives from the point of view of failure. The result was A Preparation for Death, a self-lacerating piece of autobiography, fuelled by a mixture of loathing for his old, posturing, envy-driven ego, and a sort of desperate faith in the remedial powers of total abandon. The text roved freely between scenes of boozy debauchery in Dublin and Las Vegas, family vignettes in Texas and Vienna (his grandfather was in the SS), and reflections on literature from the illuminating point of view of a writer who has recognised and repudiated his own pretensions. It offered the pleasures of a really good novel – well-observed characters, vivid descriptions, an alertly intelligent style – without any need of the contrivances that are so often the price of those pleasures in a work of fiction. Its central insight – \"I wasn\'t a writer at all, just a slave to my own preoccupation with people who were published\" – turned out to be powerful enough to support a sustained and gripping meditation on art and authenticity. It was one of those books about almost nothing, that manage to be about almost everything. It was also, implicitly, an aesthetic credo. The works of literature it cited and emulated were mostly by writers of a distinctly non- or anti-novelistic bent: Cioran, Montaigne, Henry Miller, St Augustine, and it left an impression of having decisively rejected fiction in favour of reality as the locus for future imaginative endeavours. It comes as a surprise, then, that Baxter\'s new book is a novel; not exactly a conventional novel, but one that observes and feels somewhat hobbled by the conventions of a certain type of unconventional novel. It takes places on a single day in an unnamed European city to which its unnamed American narrator has moved, for reasons that remain enigmatic: \"They asked me why I\'d come and I said I didn\'t know.\" In keeping with this austere set-up, the plot is studiously undramatic. It consists of the narrator\'s search for an apartment, undertaken with the help of a younger woman, Saskia, whom he met in an art gallery. A good deal of the narrative is made up of minute, scrupulously transcribed real-time actions and gestures, along the lines of: \"When I come back from the shower I open up the window to freshen the room, and I wait for it to get cold again, and then I close the window and dress.\" Interspersed with these passages are some livelier digressions and memories, triggered in the narrator\'s mind by chance associations as he makes his way around the city. Time and perspective, civilisation and barbarity, Islam and Christendom, form the main themes of these digressions, and they often arise out of an encounter with some unexpectedly learned individual. An ex-military guy quotes Virgil at him, which spurs a series of reflections on war and cities. An old friend\'s letter with a story from her family\'s history in Bosnia brings the agonies of the Balkan conflict into play. And so on. Baxter has an engaging way with esoteric information, presenting it from the point of view of an everyman in the process of discovering new realms of knowledge, rather than some professorial type loftily imparting things he already knows. His infectious curiosity gives these sections an energy that makes a good contrast to the rather glaciated neutrality of the comings and goings in the present-time story. Thus far, as a neo-modernist exercise in what Walter Benjamin called Irrkunst – the art of wandering, error, getting lost – The Apartment works well enough. But there is another aspect to it that makes it both a more ambitious and a more problematic book. As the day passes, we learn the narrator isn\'t quite the existential blank slate we might have taken him for. He turns out to be an ex-military guy himself, burdened with a past as a private intelligence contractor in Iraq where, by his own judgment, he has implicated himself in the deepest horrors of the US invasion. It\'s easy to understand why Baxter might have wanted his narrator\'s life to encompass each of the book\'s basic polarities – torture as well as culture. But there\'s something curiously undermining about the manner in which this speaker discloses the darker details of his past: a grandiosity that doesn\'t seem quite intended, and which, rather than revealing him as a tormented bearer of imperial guilt, makes him sound as if he thinks he\'s actually one very cool dude. It\'s more cumulative tone than specific statement, but once a narrator gets on the wrong side of you, almost everything he utters can grate. \"I was helping solve a string of kidnappings and murders,\" he says at one point; at another: \"Things happened in that building that would horrify the average middle-class person. I mean beatings, assaults, daylight robberies. I ignored it.\" I don\'t think these are meant to sound self-glorifying, but that\'s the effect. It doesn\'t help that, wherever he goes, this all-round Renaissance man seems to be irresistibly attractive to women. Or that, as the book progresses, he has an increasing tendency to indulge in verbal bombast of a low order – \"It is incongruity that creates perception, and perception, real perception, is always something violent and free. You plummet through cloud and wind and a diminishing light toward a darkness you never reach, and which, anyway, vanishes as the mind stabilises, and the outer shell of self reconstitutes.\" It\'s particularly hard to take that kind of thing from an author who has written with such witty incisiveness elsewhere. I don\'t want to overstate the flaws of The Apartment. It\'s an interesting, honourable novel, with many excellent passages. But one misses the raw candour of the earlier book, and the vulnerability of its narrator.

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