By Nicholson Baker
For a writer of short, quirky novels and plotless experimental fictions, Nicholson Baker has always managed to draw a lot of attention. From Vox, which made literature out of phone sex, to Double Fold, which started a public debate over the preservation of library newspaper archives, he seems to have a knack for finding the headlines.
Checkpoint is perhaps his most sensational outing yet. The form it takes is a typical Baker stunt: a recorded dialogue between two old friends – Jay and Ben – meeting in a Washington D.C. hotel room. Aside from the odd “clicks” and “flumps!” the two voices are all we hear.
Ben is a college instructor with an interest in digital photography.
Jay has left teaching after the breakdown of his marriage and a brush with “personal insolvency.” He now takes odd jobs as a day laborer, roofing and hauling lobster pots. He has arranged to meet Ben so he can tell him about his plan to assassinate George W. Bush. He wants their conversation recorded “to explain, for the record.”
A book that talks about plotting to kill the President is a red flag to an administration that defines any kind of criticism as a form of treason. There was much confusion before Checkpoint‘s release – some of it real, most of it hype and grandstanding – about whether Baker was seriously suggesting an intention to kill Bush. Sure it was only a novel, the critics opined, but this was getting close to the line.
A lot of the fuss has died down now that Checkpoint is out, and what we’re left with is a surprisingly un-incendiary text. The execution (the literary execution, I mean) is, as usual, wonderful. Baker excels at creating a character’s voice, a skill that makes even his most seemingly trivial or banal fictions (like A Box of Matches) hard to put down. Checkpoint is no exception, and the rendering of the rhythm, flow and association of ideas and language in conversation is almost perfectly rendered here.
But both as a political tract and the expression of an emotion – frustration, rage, impotence – Checkpoint is muddled.
On the one hand, Jay offers a perfectly valid and coherent critique of the Bush administration, one that can be summarized in his outburst: “Blood, greed, and bullshit!” He is well informed, watches all the cable news channels and associated pundits, and responds with sensitivity to the human disaster in Iraq. And he has no trouble expressing himself in colourful language:
BEN: Why do you keep singling him out? We’ve had bad presidents for fifty years.
JAY: He’s the absolute worst. He’s the broken pickle.
BEN: The broken pickle?
JAY: The one at the bottom of the jar, with the seeds swirling around it.
But Jay is also insane. His plans for killing the President include a Bush-seeking bullet (so that he only has to fire his gun in the right general direction), “radio-controlled flying saws” and a depleted uranium boulder. These are simply ridiculous. And his rants about abortion, shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, and the general moral and economic collapse of America seem like elements tossed in to fill out some alienated paranoid psychotic personality profile.
“I wrote Checkpoint because a lot of people felt a kind of powerless, seething fury when President Bush took the country to war,” Baker has said. “I wanted to capture the specificity of that rage.”
But Baker has only marginalized and disbursed that rage, not captured its specificity. Jay is a bitter loser, a nut and a fool. His rage is not a reaction to Bush but the result of the “bollix” he’s made of his life. It isn’t Bush who is “beyond the beyond,” but Jay himself.
The result is a book that is less controversial, and has a lot less to say, than at first appears. It is the mirror image of Baker’s other work, which explores in obsessive detail the importance of everyday, trivial matters and patterns of thought. In contrast, the public gravity of Ben and Jay’s dialogue seems to lose significance the more it is personalized. The historical moment is not Baker’s métier. The roll of navel lint in A Box of Matches is of more weight than Jay’s plot to kill the president, and was less easily dismissed.
Review first published August 21, 2004. Despite all of the media attention, sales were disappointing.