Greg Baxter is novelist that lives in New York—at least for the moment. He’s not a “New York novelist” by any means. In fact, none of his books, except for the occasional remembrance, are even set in America. Nor were any of his books written in America. But, Baxter was born and raised in Texas. Such is the complexity of trying to understand Baxter’s oeuvre in geographical terms. For that matter, Baxter’s oeuvre defies easy categorization or understanding on any front. His first publication was a collection of autobiographical narrative nonfiction about being a writer—written and published before he’d yet made his breakthrough as a novelist.
His first novel, The Apartment, was published in America by Twelve at the end of 2013, and follows an American seeking an apartment in an unnamed European city that is reminiscent of Berlin, Prague, and Budapest, but claims to be none and all of these. The American, a former contractor in Iraq, is wealthy and retired at a young age. But, he is listless and unmoored, taken to the snowbound European city for no particular reason, and guided by a younger woman named Saskia whom he has just met. Their story takes place in a single day, moving as quickly and beautifully as the snowstorm that has engulfed the mysterious city.
Munich Airport, published in January by Twelve, is Baxter’s follow up, and is the story of an American expat living in London who finds out that his sister, also an expat but living in Berlin, has died of starvation. The unsettling news sends the narrator and his academic father to Germany to claim her body and settle her affairs before returning her to America for burial. In the course of a few weeks while the two men struggle to come to terms with such an unnerving situation, the narrator and his father also succumb to the appeals of negation, withering themselves into ghosts waiting impatiently in Munich Airport for their delayed flight in a series of events that devolves into a perverse comedy of errors. Like The Apartment, the Americans of Munich Airport find themselves out of place, regardless of where they live, and have trouble defining themselves in a way that not only distinguishes themselves from their pasts, but that also gives meaning to life away from “home.”
I corresponded with Baxter over email to discuss Munich Airport, and how living abroad has affected his writing.
The Rumpus: It’s hard to deny the influence of being an expat in your writing. Your first book, a memoir called A Preparation for Death, is about your life as a striving writer in Ireland. Your first novel, The Apartment, follows an unnamed American in an unnamed European city as he tries to reintegrate himself into society after years of contracting in Iraq. And, most recently, your novel Munich Airport follows an unnamed American living in London to Berlin to collect his sister’s body.
In your memoir you mention your time at an MFA program in Louisiana, as well as your successes publishing articles and stories and several scrapped manuscripts. Did you believe you had to leave the country to write? Could you have been a successful writer if you had stayed?
Greg Baxter: If I did leave to save my writing, it didn’t work. The change came years later, when I discovered Montaigne and became interested in the essay, or I should say the freedom of the essay. All my assumptions about writing changed in a matter of weeks. Also, leaving places feels necessary to me, even now that I’ve left the States. I build routines, get settled, feel less and less foreign, less alien, and my imagination starts to stagnate.
Rumpus: You’re primarily published in the UK, but you live in Berlin. Do you identify as an American living abroad, or as something else?
Baxter: I’ve always had—and I explore it in my books—a complicated sense of identity. My father was born in Vienna, and we have family there, and I visit often. And my grandmother, who lived with us in Texas, would have stressed my Austrian-ness at every opportunity. In my novels, there seems to always be a tension between two places, neither of which suffices as a home. But, coincidentally, I’m not currently abroad. I’m in New York, teaching a class at Columbia.
Rumpus: Have you lived in New York before? How do you envision yourself as a writer returned to America? Is there still a sense of being an outsider?
Baxter: This is the first time I’ve lived in New York. And although I’ve only lived here a few months—and unfortunately have to leave after the semester—New York is the perfect antidote to someone who’s grown sick of Berlin. Manhattan seems to stomp on the very same naive nonsense that fuels Berlin’s creative class’s delusions. Maybe after four years in Manhattan, I’d grow sick of that, too. I don’t really envision myself as a writer returned to America, in part because the only real writing ‘success’ I’ve had has been the US publication of The Apartment. In a sense, I came back then, and I’ve stayed.
Rumpus: Do you feel as though you’ve had many lives as a writer, given that you began writing seriously in an American MFA program, moved to Ireland and published a memoir and wrote The Apartment, and now live in Berlin where you completed Munich Airport?
Baxter: I suppose I do feel a bit like that, from time to time. The older I get, though, the less I feel preoccupied with early failures, with my writing life before the essays.
Rumpus: I’d like to call you an old-fashioned novelist, if I may. Both The Apartment and Munich Airport are written in a continental, existentialist tradition—something that you don’t really see too much of today, at least not in America. Do you consciously write against trends? Or, do you think your writing style is more a reflection of the influences you’ve absorbed as a reader?
Baxter: That’s a nice thing to say. I don’t think I’m entirely old-fashioned but I think I know what you mean, and certainly books in the traditions you mention feature heavily on my bookshelves. I try to not intellectualize my relationship to the books I admire, so I don’t deliberately set out to ask continental or existentialist—or some such—questions. And I hope I’ve given myself a sufficient variety of traditions as foundational influences (autobiography in particular—I love the stoicism of the essay). I also try to stay inspired by extra-literary sources. Around the time I started imagining a man trapped in an airport (I had got stuck in a wheelchair at Munich Airport after breaking my ankle in Romania), two obsessions were beginning—first was Charlemagne, which drew me into an obsession with the Middle Ages, and second was the composer Alban Berg, which drew me into an obsession with Schoenberg and dodecaphonic music. Somehow those things felt related, even though they couldn’t possibly have been. So I needed something to connect them, and that’s the way it always seems to go: something bad has to happen. In the case of Munich Airport, I got very ill, I didn’t eat for days, and as I recovered I found something strangely empowering about denying appetite. And with that, there seemed to be a way of connecting the Middle Ages to twelve-tone music to an airport. It would involve Berlin, World War II, diplomacy, art, California, London, the South, a lodge in Scotland, a mother, and archeology, but it could be done. What I think I mean to say by all this—as I realize I’m not answering your question—is that trends in literature, as things to accept or reject, are not in my thoughts as I set out to write.
Rumpus: Focusing on Munich Airport, you’ve produced a novel that dares question the linear motion of progress. Throughout the novel, there is an overwhelming sense of constraint and a paralyzing inevitability. The narrator thinks on his current despondency and hopelessness: “I was trapped in this one life, that I was within time and this body, that there were no other times and no other bodies.” Is this the predicament of our age, or of all ages?
Baxter: This sense of despair, this idea of being trapped in one’s own body, in language, and in time, actually begins in The Apartment, and I think it’s just more fully realized in Munich Airport, which is why Munich Airport had to be a much funnier book than The Apartment—at least I hope it is. I don’t want to reject linearity in principle, but the tangled sequence of memories that fuses to the present-day plots, which themselves can get tangled, helped me express the terror in the passage you quote, and that passage is nothing more than something that occurs to me all the time. I suppose the intensity of this terror, as you say, is a predicament that belongs to the modern age, when our afterlives no longer feel like reasonable things to believe in.
Rumpus: Perhaps more than just linear plot structure, do you think the movement of history as a sequence of events leading to greater “progress” has ended? Of what has been credited to you as “anti-Enlightenment philosophy”? (Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal) There is Otis’s statement that, “At no time in human history have human beings had less freedom, less happiness,” as well as the father’s background as a medieval historian and his conception of bearing the shame of history. Is this, perhaps, the unspoken inspiration behind Miriam’s desire to starve?
Baxter: That line—“at no time in human history have human beings had less freedom, less happiness”—was a direct quote by an author I overheard at some symposium in Berlin on the future of the novel (I’d been asked to come along and participate). All I could think was: what a vapid, selfish, cowardly thing to say, what a typically Berlin-y thing to say, something you might say while shopping in a new concept store on Torstrasse, buying an ironic Bill Laimbeer t-shirt for 200 euro. I hated that utterance so severely that I may have invented an eminent historian merely to give the rebuttal: “I suspect he hasn’t heard of the tenth century.” Personally, I have no sympathy for the defeatist clichés by which Otis and others like him define our world and time—the fact that he is stealing his dead ex-girlfriend’s clothes, jewelry, and furniture is an indication of his lack of moral courage (stealing from the dead, though, in flea markets and antiques stores, is a civic pastime in Berlin). I hear this from authors all the time—that human beings have so little freedom; it seems sometimes as if this vapid little belief is fueling the last days of what we sometimes call literary fiction. But the way they confront this problem is to try to find a way to appeal, to see the deficiency not in their own cowardice but in their lack of audience. So they make unthinkable concessions. They throw their freedom away. That was my sense of reading contemporary literature, back when (before my first book) I was so preoccupied with it: that contemporary literature is the place people go to see what cultural enslavement really looks like, just concession after concession, which is, in actuality, contempt and disregard for readers. Personally, I think we have enormous freedom, as human beings, but it’s easier to be enslaved by our materialist urges and our happiness addictions, easier to be stupid than to feel alarmed at the amount of freedom we dump from our lives every day.
Now, all of the above belongs to my personal thoughts on the matter, but none of the above would make a very good novel. It might make a good retort to the author who spoke at the symposium, but in the end it’s just another opinion, another act of aggression. And it’s actually something that the majority of people who like to read go round being completely aware of. I realize it’s not new. Novels must say something new. And the only way newness can be achieved is through unfathomable complexity and nuance—complexity and nuance many times removed from any sense of authorial intent. So you let go. You give in to your uncertainties. You attack your own beliefs. You summon your influences, you humble yourself before them, you make yourself as small as possible. And you let your stories express complexity. So Otis, the thief, is also Otis the man with three jobs, struggling to support his daughter. The father, the eminent historian, is actually not at all that eminent, has no understanding of time. And the narrator, who at first seems to be saving his sister’s memory by moving everything out before Otis can steal it, finds himself stealing from Otis’s daughter, who could theoretically be (but is not) Miriam’s daughter.
Rumpus: The narrator even remarks on his reaction to his sister’s starvation as “an appreciation of her death.” How do you interpret this statement? Is life too banal to enjoy?
Baxter: I don’t want to suggest that life is too banal to enjoy. If I thought existence was banal, or human freedom and injustice not worth discussing, I’d be sitting in a bar in a mall in San Antonio, TX, right now, having a double vodka for lunch, then back to the office to sell medical supplies. But I also don’t want to say anything sensationally sentimental (and banal) such as ‘life is worth fighting for.” Of course it is. Why are writers of bleak novels, who generally have the most respect for human intelligence (and for readers), always accused of being nihilists and pessimists, when the writers of optimistic, neat, easy-to-digest novels, who are adding layer after layer of illusion to the earth (and who insult the intelligence of their readers), praised for their compassion?
I think it’s pretty clear that Miriam’s death is not just a suicide—not just an eating disorder—and her death is a choice. Starving herself is a way for Miriam to feel empowered, and the fact that such a way of life is unsustainable, that it will lead to her death, is not really relevant to her decision not to eat. I don’t think there’s any mystery around that. I think the book’s mystery, or at least what was never answerable for me, was how one might go about appreciating such a death, and what one learns in the process. The story of Munich Airport is how the father and son go about appreciating Miriam’s death, and all the strange events and strange ways of thinking that arise as a result.
Rumpus: One of the finest and most moving moments of the novel is when the father, upon viewing Miriam’s coffin being loaded into the belly of the awaiting plane, becomes irritable and uncontrollable, blurting out “What is the meaning of this?” Would you say, then, that the appreciation of Miriam’s death is precisely this type of unknowing? That the meaning of her death, and death in general, is not solvable.
Baxter: One of the few things I think I remember while writing the book (which I finished in the summer of 2013) is getting to that moment and thinking, What in the world have I done? I have failed, failed, failed. As an author, I never try to set out to accomplish anything, but then one hopes that a year or years of work, inspiration, and struggle will add up to something. I arrived at that point and felt utterly dejected, having once again produced an extraordinarily bleak, and this time also gruesome, book. But where else could I go? Was I going to solve the meaning of grief? So this unknowing is a terrible place to be, but it’s the only honest way out of the book; anything else would be a bankrupt gesture.
Rumpus: Despite the bleak progression of events in Munich Airport, the ending has a more open-ended feel. The final image of the narrator deciding whether to continue rowing his boat to a seemingly unreachable vantage or return to the waving dinner guests awaiting him at shore can be both optimistically and pessimistically. Would you be surprised that readers favor one interpretation, or did you write the ending ambiguously enough to test how readers would react?
Baxter: It’s okay with me if people read Munich Airport as bleak. The books I admire, I don’t admire for their bleakness or lightness, I admire them for the integrity of their sentences and their refusal to be defined by what’s expected of them. But the darkest of them always have balance, a natural balance that is not a concession but something that arises spontaneously and naturally from despair—laughter. And I hope people will find a lot of laughter in Munich Airport, no matter how it arises.
But to answer your question regarding optimism and pessimism: The idea, and this fits in to the nonlinear telling, is to create inescapable structures, negativity machines without any moving parts or hatches. What I find most surprising is the way people have felt an optimistic softness at the end of The Apartment. No ending I’ve produced yet has, in my mind, been bleaker. He sits in his apartment, listening to the radio, while the inevitably of his failure dawns on him. He then has a memory of Iraq, then of walking home with his companion, Saskia. But in doing so he creates a inescapable loop, in which he is doomed to live out this last night forever, forever returning to the memory of saying goodbye to Saskia, then he wakes in his apartment again, to live out the same scene again in his apartment, looking out over the snowy graveyard and listening to his radio, to fall into the memory of his cowardice, then again to Saskia, then he awakens again. Munich Airport’s ending is similar. It’s a loop. If people decide, after reading the books, that the last thing they want to remember is the narrator and Saskia standing on a beautiful, snowy street thinking about breakfast, or the narrator on a boat on a beautiful Scottish lake, with people waving mysteriously at him, then they can make these books optimistic. But I hope a closer look reveals more complex circumstances.