The author of The Apartment (2012) and Munich Airport (2014) is a pointillist with words. He’s like the nineteenth-century painter Seurat conjuring a million dots into a picture of reality; except he’s a writer. His words are like pixels: amass enough of them together and you begin to see distinct shapes and actions emerge out of the agglomeration of marks. That makes him sound difficult to read, but actually the reading is easy: the vocabulary contained and the sentences artless and sometimes dirge-like. If the reader does have to work, and why not, the effort comes with making sense of the patterns. The narrator of Munich Airport at one point riffs on his admiration for the 12-tone system of Arnold Schoenberg, making a new kind of music out of the constant rearrangement of 12-note tone rows. Some of the things that are usually said about that music of the early twentieth century could be said about Baxter’s narratives: that they don’t obviously have a beginning, middle and an end but rather start and stop without chapter breaks; and that above all, in reaction to the religious and humanist art of the past, they don’t offer emotional delivery. Instead they tend to withdraw and fade away.
Baxter though isn’t austere like Schoenberg, and when he stops writing and you stop reading you feel he’s greedy for more space. That frenetic appetite is one of themes. It makes the closely related narrators, but especially the nameless Munich Airport narrator, travel, anywhere and everywhere. He reels off the names from the arrivals and departures signs at the airport and the turn-offs along the motorway. Even when he’s somewhere like Berlin or London or Cologne or Munich or Aachen he just keeps on the move, changing cars, flats, routes, clothes. With no overall aim, with just a conglomeration of short-term goals that flicker and change like the names on the signboards, he consumes everything on the way. One of Baxter’s themes is consuming, consumption, being greedy and it brings into play the reverse themes of abstention and anorexia. (How fitting that this ‘greedy’ writer’s first novel, A Preparation for Death, was about having writer’s block.) His Munich Airport narrator consumes and spews out information with as much relish and disgust as food and alcohol. His own body, replicated in the prose, is deeply problematic. Indeed, if I had to choose theme number three, compounded of one and two, I’d say it was discomfort. The novel travels the whole scala from indigestion to blinding physical pain, and, along a parallel tone tow, from mild dislocation to deep disorientation. At some point when he gets fat he writes: ‘I felt myself fattening — expanding with habits, ideas, opinions, things – and it seemed to me that my work was not just keeping me in circumstances that allowed for and required this expansion but it was a plague, an incurable and inescapable plague of superabundance and anxiety.’ That atypically long and climactic sentence is, I think, the key to what Baxter’s about: UNEASE. I can’t write it large enough. Elsewhere: ‘My teeth ache. My head aches. My eyes ache. And all these aches seem distantly related to the problem of what to do with my jumper, and the consequences of leaving it behind and the burden of taking it with me.’ But it’s important that nothing, or almost nothing ever comes to a head, because that would give the narrative a meaning. Some sentiment or action would stand out against the relative meaninglessness of the rest, and with that hierarchy the novel would slip into a more traditional form.
Along with the cleanliness and the body mass and the possessions that come and go in Baxter’s worlds are also beauty and sincerity. The narrator notices the handsome folk who turn away from him and he has a fetish for scar tissue. His family relationships are ruined and his record with women is poor. Nor will he allow death to be a way out. That’s when life, like this narrative, simply stops. This IS materialism, folks.
What actually and conventionally ‘happens’ in Munich Airport can be said in a sentence: an elderly American academic and his middle-aged son are held up at a fog-bound German airport as they attempt to repatriate the body of Miriam, the other child of the family, dead of anorexia and loneliness in a grim flat in Berlin. For the rest this is a novel about the procedures and institutions of contemporary Western life which eat out the heart of our capacity to feel and express ourselves sincerely and which long ago stopped us nourishing our souls. Political correctness and corporate efficiency are like so much dust that has settled over a humanity that can’t grasp that it has become deformed.
To stay with the Schoenberg comparison, The Apartment retains, like the twelve-tone master’s early work, an engaging strain of romanticism, by which I mean the reader is offered a little more emotional sustenance in Baxter’s first work of fiction to break through. Set in an unnamed former East Bloc city which has a peculiar charm, it’s a novel that starts and stops with a new arrival in the place finding a place to live. Two women help him, one of whom is perhaps on the way to becoming a lover. I’ve read reviewers deliver a more sentimental account of that relationship, but I think they’re on the wrong track. What actually hangs over this narrative is a fear of violence and possibly a craving for it that maybe a measure of guilt can’t halt. It’s something about the narrator that women strangers are unaware of but perhaps men suspect. Men don’t like him. As a certain momentum grows, before it fizzles out, we’re not sure whether this stranger, who was with US Intelligence in Iraq, and then went back as a private businessman to make himself a pot of money, is dangerous or not.
Baxter, like his protagonists, was born in the American South, and now lives in Berlin and London. He writes into his novels a suspicion that many Europeans think of Americans as loud, undesirable folk and of some Americans as evil. His narrators both use that word and the Seeker after an Apartment in a cold foreign city uses it more than once, as he accounts to us for all the money he has to spend courtesy of his time in another city in the desert.