Twelve, January 2015
Reviewed by Derek Parsons
In Kafka’s famous story, the artist, weakened by an extended fast and on the verge of death, admits to a passing overseer that he only fasted because he couldn’t find the food he liked, and that was why he shouldn’t be admired. It was not a choice, fasting, but the compulsion of an unknown desire that could not be sated. The art of his calculated and labored starvation is his suffering, and the “reward,” moreover, that is cheated from him is the recognition of his freedom to self-destruct. The irony is that the artist starves because he is consumed with desire.
Munich Airport, Greg Baxter’s stunning follow-up to his elegant and spare debut novel, The Apartment, reimagines Kafka’s parable of desire. Having just discovered that his estranged sister Miriam has been found dead of starvation in her Berlin apartment, the narrator embarks on a journey with his elderly father to claim and return her body to America for burial. But Miriam’s choice to slowly emaciate herself into oblivion, like Kafka’s artist, is not merely a suicide. Miriam has chosen negation. She pursues a life of un-life, to wither rather than thrive. As a neighbor of Miriam’s boldly and abruptly remarks to the narrator, perhaps in an unsolicited and oblique attempt to justify her actions: “At no time in history have human beings had less freedom, less happiness.” The father, a historian, later remarks to the narrator when he mentions the neighbor’s statement, “I suspect he’s forgotten the tenth century,” alluding to a time when people were undoubtedly less empowered economically, politically, and technologically; therefore, they must have been less happy. Contemporary democratic governments, at least in Western cultures, are designed to empower ordinary citizens, but the cynic would counter that this is merely an illusion. What freedom do we really have? We are suffocated, starved by the constraints of our cultural upbringing—our history. In the tenth century, all was possible. What is left to possibility today? Or is that sentiment merely a misplaced nostalgia for simpler times, as it were, when life was rigidly organized, and freedom was not a political platform but the will to happiness? Who is more blind: the man guided by progress, or the man guided by apathy?
After spending several weeks in Germany to settle the affairs required of claiming a foreign national’s body, the narrator, his father, and a dutiful State Department official named Trish, who has served as their liaison and emotional support, are encumbered by a wall of fog overtaking Munich airport, delaying all outgoing flights. As though in purgatory, Baxter draws the airport like a massive waiting room. The physical space of the crowded terminal, teeming with anxious passengers waiting for the announcement of their gates to board planes to somewhere, is a perfect metaphor for the overall sense of enclosure experienced throughout the novel. The narrator even expresses his powerlessness: “Then it occurs to me that I am totally contained, that I am right now utterly contained in a medium of symbols with functions or malfunctions, and no amount of rhetorical hyperactivity or adornment will release me, and there is no language only I can understand—there is no privacy in which to hide.” Persistently isolated, the narrator’s listless life—also an expat, he lives in London—is dangerously culminated by the experience of his dead sister. Fearing the containment of his body, like Miriam, the narrator gruesomely proves that the fear of death is simply the fear of living.
If this all seems bleak, it is because Baxter is refreshingly bleak. The existential crises experienced by his characters are not treated as solvable deficiencies, explained away by backstory or the saving grace of some fairy-tale love interest. Munich Airport’s despondency is equally inspired by the ideas of pessimist philosophers and the great existentialist writers, as it is Faulkner’s tragic death march in As I Lay Dying, and, in particular, Fitzgerald’s closing words of The Great Gatsby, which Baxter hauntingly echoes in the novel’s final scene. Few novelists possess Baxter’s ability to delicately and deftly structure their novels around such little exposition, which is about as great a compliment one could give an author today. There is no easy or better way to describe Munich Airport except as an affront to life itself, challenging its readers to look beyond the comforts of living, and, if not enact Miriam’s ascetic brand of willfulness, then question the very meaning of existence. It is not the negated individual that is cheated, but rather the world is cheated when it deliberately misunderstands negation, repackaging it as an anomaly instead of, in Baxter’s words, “an appreciation for death.” Few novels so urgently and demandingly make themselves feel as necessary as Munich Airport.