Munich Airport, Greg Baxter’s excellent second novel, is already in danger of being overlooked. “Well, so are a lot of books,” you say, and rightly so. But Baxter, with his blunt, digressive prose and caustic emotional outlook, deserves to be included with Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk in the current conversation about what fiction can do and where it is going. His new novel combines the prolix, emotional rawness of the former two writers with the intellectual poise of the latter, though he is not as reflexively self-conscious about writing or autobiography as any of them. Instead, he has succeeded in implicitly addressing the anxieties inherent to the contemporary fiction writer from within a self-contained, deeply affecting narrative.
Baxter’s novels—his first, The Apartment, was published in 2013—share with those of his significant contemporaries a distrust of the conventions of the “well-made” realist novel, with their satisfying plot arcs and character development. (This distrust, admittedly, is prevalent in books that get reviewed by James Wood and in Bookforum, but old-fashioned constructions like Anthony Doerr’s best-selling All the Light We Cannot See and Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena still seem to represent the median style for literary fiction.) His first book, A Preparation for Death, is a collection of autobiographical essays that arose, in part, from his disenchantment with the process of writing and selling fiction. Baxter writes in that book, with retroactive self-incrimination, of his reasons for moving from the US to Europe: “I could not bear the humiliation of being an unpublished novelist in a country where bad writing, as it seemed to me, had become institutionalized. I resented everyone I knew—for their success, which I considered fraudulent, or for their stupidity, which I considered implacable.”
Some version of that thought has surely streamed through the head of most fiction writers of the past two hundred years, but Baxter deserves credit for putting it, as well as the rest of his hilarious, depressing, sometimes cringe-inducing thoughts, down on paper in that book, surely knowing that they would elicit as much scorn as recognition. The New Yorker reviewed A Preparation for Death, knives out, in a roundup of books about literary failure, but the book is mostly concerned with learning to re-engage with the elements of worthwhile literature: honesty, close observation, and empathy, to name a few. His material—an unhappy family and marriage, too much drinking and meaningless sex, a constant existential malaise caused and exacerbated by those things—is established in its raw form in this first book, though, as for many writers, it seems to have required the strange alchemy of fiction to come fully alive.
Munich Airport fuses these personal preoccupations with a plot at least as old as The Iliad: the process of burying and mourning a loved one. The present action of the book takes place completely in the titular airport over the course of about a day, and is occupied mostly with the narrator’s reflections on the previous three weeks, during which he and his father have been killing time—alternately drinking heavily and starving themselves– in Europe while navigating the bureaucratic labyrinth required to have the body of the narrator’s sister, who has died of anorexia, brought back to the United States. It’s as brutal as it sounds. I would not recommend reading it in Penn Station with a hangover while waiting for an indefinitely delayed train, though if you happened to do that, you might develop a kind of nauseous fraternity with the book that later scans as something like profound admiration, even love.
Baxter is not interested in skimming lightly over his protagonists’ experience—he wants the reader to confront and inhabit the narrator’s and his father’s complete debilitation in the face of grief and self-pity. The novel contains the best—worst? most thorough?—depiction of exhaustion in recent fiction, the effect of which must be experienced cumulatively. The prose, as in Don Bartlett’s English translation of Knausgaard, is functional and ruthless, the better to directly transmit the narrator’s psychological state: “I stand up. My back is sore. My joints are sore. My jaw is sore. There is acute pain that jabs, now and again, in my gut somewhere, and also in what feels like my bladder … I open my eyes and realize my head is all the way back, without any support. I nearly give myself whiplash trying to lift my head … I don’t want to admit that I cannot move. I try to speak but I can’t make any sense. I make the kind of noises one makes with a jaw full of novocaine.”
He is also, throughout this ordeal, bleeding from a self-inflicted knife wound, whose gruesome occurrence is recounted with a deadpan rhythm indebted, like much of the novel’s sensibility, to Beckett’s grim corporeal comedy routines. “I went down to the hotel reception,” he writes of the night of the event, “and asked for a sharp knife. The woman behind the desk said, Big or small? Small, I said, but sharp. She gave me a serrated steak knife from the kitchen. Perfect, I said, thanks very much.” He cuts a “hunk of flesh” out of the side of his gut, then calls down to the front desk with a request for emergency first aid. “I opened the door, and the receptionist cried out something in Luxembourgish, which I assume meant, You are bleeding! I really was bleeding. It was very heavy, and I said, That’s why I need the first aid. You need a hospital, she said. There’s no need for a hospital, I said. The woman said, There will be a fine for smoking, and you must pay for the towels you have ruined, please give me the knife.”
These are the jokes. But as in Beckett (and the oeuvre of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, among others), the ravages of the body serve as the outward manifestation of a convulsively ambivalent mind. The narrator is nominally a marketing consultant, but his incisive riffs on classical music, World War II, the Middle Ages (on which his father is a world renowned scholar), and much else mark him as a frustrated intellectual, a man seemingly incapable of putting his raging thoughts to use. This is borne out explicitly in an episode in which he meets an artist in Brussels, visits her experimental sound installation, and spends the night with her. She asks him at one point what he wanted to be when he was young. His internal response morphs into a reflection on the process of making and experiencing art.
“She meant the question honestly,” he thinks. “I think she even meant it kindly, as in, I seemed like the kind of person who could be more, or achieve more, than what I had become and achieved in my life. And she based this on the fact that she thought I liked her music… and because, like all artists, she based her belief on the potential of others to be more or achieve more by their capacity to appreciate her music, even though—and perhaps it isn’t true in her case—what often happens is that artists base their faith in others on their incapacity to recognize bullshit, or their unwillingness to declare bullshit when they see it.”
This sounds like the author of A Preparation for Death, refusing to engage with a writing community defined by fraudulence and stupidity—an “incapacity” or “unwillingness to declare bullshit.” It’s thrilling to watch Baxter fiercely re-engage with these concerns with the benefit of fiction’s distancing power. The richness of both the emotions and ideas at play throughout the book stands as a rebuke to the younger Baxter’s anxieties about the limitations of fiction. And many of the sequences here—particularly one set in a bunker-like museum displaying monumental recreations of World War II battles—show off an observational verve that is surprising in such an inwardly focused writer. In Munich Airport, the narrator decides, after giving it some thought, that if he could have been anything he would have liked to be a doctor. But he’d probably make a hell of a novelist.