Online Edition: Fall 2004

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Checkpoint

Nicholson Baker

Knopf ($15.95)

by Andrew Palmer

When Knopf belatedly added Nicholson Baker's latest novel, Checkpoint, to its summer list, the announcement generated as much controversy and official nervousness as might have been expected from a novel by a prominent author about two men discussing the potential assassination of George W. Bush. The clamor died down when the book proved to be relatively harmless, no more than a work of literary fiction. It was widely reviewed in the mainstream media, and widely—though not universally—panned. Leon Wieselteir, in a review for the New York Times Book Review, called Checkpoint a "scummy little book"; Timothy Noah, on Slate.com, dismissed it as "pornography." Those who praised the novel tended to sympathize with the anti-Bush rhetoric of its characters, while tempering their praise with reservations about its thin plot and apparent lack of conclusion, moral or otherwise. So Checkpoint was either deliberately inflammatory, pointless, or both.

It turns out to be neither. Checkpoint has been both underestimated and misunderstood, a shameful disservice to one of the best, most original, living American novelists. Though less substantial than Baker's earlier books, it's a significant addition to his work, developing many of the themes he has explored since 1988's The Mezzanine, and revealing his imaginative range to be even broader than he had already demonstrated.

Checkpoint is a short book—just over a hundred pages—and it consists entirely of the supposed transcript of a conversation between two middle-aged men, Jay and Ben, in a D.C. hotel room (with a brief interruption from room service). Right away, Jay tells Ben he's planning to assassinate Bush ("I think we have to lance the fucking boil"), but it soon becomes clear that there is little chance of this actually happening: one of Jay's proposed methods of assassination is to crush the president with a remote control boulder. The conversation turns into more or less of a therapy session. Ben enumerates the reasons why killing Bush is not a good idea (even while venting his own rage against the president), engages Jay in diverting conversation, and gently offers him advice. Jay, for his part, explains the sources of his anger, much of which boils down to ranting against Bush and the war in Iraq: "No, Ben, this guy is beyond the beyond. What he's done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It's too much. It makes me so angry."

The two men also touch upon their personal histories, from which we learn that they're old college buddies drifting in different directions. Ben is a professor of American history, with a wife and son, while Jay, divorced, has abandoned teaching and spent the last few years drifting from job to job. Jay also has a history of mental instability, though its most serious manifestation up to this point has been a harmless prank—sawing the legs off the chair of an assistant principal.

By the end of the novel, Ben has apparently succeeded in talking Jay out of the assassination attempt. As an alternative, Ben convinces Jay to hit a photograph of a smiling Bush with a hammer. Jay finds the catharsis of this act only somewhat satisfying, but he admits to feeling a little sorry for Bush, and agrees to let Ben drive him home.

Checkpoint is hugely enjoyable. Despite (or maybe because of) its brevity, it is well-paced and compelling, and Baker's ear for the rhythms and nuances of dialogue remains unparalleled. Take this early exchange:

JAY: When did we last get together? Was that three years ago?
BEN: May have been. Long time.
JAY: I'm so sorry about that wheelbarrow, man.
BEN: No no no.

Ben's stuttering demurral is exactingly true-to-life, and the wheelbarrow incident (besides being both humorous and revealing) is never mentioned again—nor does it have anything to do with the dialogue that precedes and follows it. This is precisely what makes it convincing as a turn in a friendly conversation, whose forms are rarely linear. Ben and Jay answer each other's questions and build on each other's points, but they also interrupt, ignore, and mishear each other. They struggle for the right word, misspeak, or make up their own words. Their conversation is awkward and scattershot, as most real conversations are.

Beyond this naturalism, the conversation is also very funny, in Baker's piquant way. Much of the humor comes from the unusual premise, and is about as dark as it gets. But even if hearing the president called a "penisfucker" doesn't arouse a chuckle, there are plenty of less partisan comic touches. At one point, the two men are discussing Wal-Mart. Jay rails against it, but Ben is more lenient on the corporate giant:

BEN: I'll tell you, my son has always loved going to Wal-Mart. On our last trip there I bought a DVD of the Andy Griffith Show. It cost five dollars and fifty cents. We got a delicious pretzel on the way out. And there were friendly chatty women in the crafts and sewing area.
JAY: What were they chatting about?
BEN: Who was going to go on break first.
JAY: Anyway, it's pretty dang ugly.
BEN: I'll concede that.

But convincing dialogue and irreverent humor don't necessarily add up to a good novel. In fact, for many critics it's this irreverence that's one of the novel's biggest flaws. Charles Taylor, in a review for Salon.com, condemned Checkpoint for lacking "moral seriousness." Along similar lines, many others have accused Baker of spouting forth the same old liberal arguments, and therefore "pander[ing] to [his] readers' crudest beliefs," in the words of Slate's Noah. Even those critics who appreciate the anti-Bush, anti-war sentiments of the characters have expressed disappointment that those sentiments are so familiar, and that Baker seems to offer no supportable solutions to the current state of our country's foreign relations.

One hastens to remind such critics that Checkpoint is a work of dramatic fiction, and that it's the characters who are advancing the "same old arguments," not Baker. In fact, Baker seems to have gone to great lengths to thoroughly remove any semblance of an authoritative voice from the novel. The text (or so we are led to believe) is pure artifact, the unedited transcript of a conversation. Such a format should encourage readings that carefully distinguish between the characters' opinions and the author's. Even though this distinction has generally been glossed over in the popular discourse on Checkpoint, the array of responses to the characters' views is telling, providing a kind of Rorschach test for readers' positions on Bush and Iraq. Those who support the war in Iraq see Jay and Ben as unthinking Bush bashers. Some have even read the novel as a parody of anti-Bush rhetoric. Those who do not support the war in Iraq praise the novel for advancing opinions similar to their own. If there is parody, they fail to see it.

Such different responses testify to the ambiguity of the novel's message, and indicate that Baker's position—that is, the position of the book, rather than the characters—may lie somewhere in between the two extremes.

What about the charges that the novel offers no solutions? This is a valid concern: Checkpoint may be an accurate document of one side of current popular political opinion ("another discouraging document of this age of wild talk" according to the New York Times's Wieseltier), but because, despite all of its humor, it poses such serious ethical questions, it is reasonable to expect it should suggest some equally serious answers. I would argue that in fact, it does—not about what the Bush administration should do about the war in Iraq, but what the average American citizen can do in the face of this action.

This line of thinking is advanced by Ben, who essentially suggests that it's best not to think too much about current events. "You want to keep focused, keep to a small canvas," he tells Jay. Accordingly, he spends his work hours researching obscure historical curiosities, such as the possibility that American military strategists specializing in "passive defense" are partially responsible for urban sprawl. He advises his students who are upset about the war to copy out a book they like word for word. And his main hobby is snapping photographs of trees with his expensive camera—an activity he encourages Jay to take up as an antidote to worrying about the war. Late in the book, Ben describes the immense satisfaction of photographing a leafless catalpa tree in his neighborhood. "So who cares then about George W.?" he concludes. "He's irrelevant. He's irrelevant. You see?"

Ben's answer to the war, in itself, is probably not satisfactory. But Baker's earlier work, obsessed as it is with apparently meaningless minutiae, makes it easy to conclude that Baker himself supports Ben's position from a more general perspective. Baker has always written about the peripheral—things we're embarrassed to admit we think about (like disrobing a coworker, as in The Fermata), or things that we don't think much about but that hover on the edges of our consciousness (like shoelaces and straws, as in The Mezzanine). Most Americans these days are not actually thinking about assassinating George W. Bush, but it's safe to say that many of us, as Jay suggests, would have ambivalent feelings upon hearing the news of his assassination. It's this shadowy area of morality that Baker explores in Checkpoint.

Superficially, the previous Baker novel that Checkpoint most resembles is Vox (the phone sex novel): both take the form of an extended dialogue, and both are about subjects that are not normally broached in conversation. And Checkpoint has much in common with The Fermata, also about a man of questionable morality. But in at least one important respect, Checkpoint is more similar to Baker's first novel, The Mezzanine, and his second-most recent novel, A Box of Matches: each of these books is about, at least implicitly, how to deal with certain familiar aspects of contemporary America. In The Mezzanine, the setting is the corporate world, in A Box of Matches it's a middle class household, and in Checkpoint it's the entire country under the shadow of the war in Iraq. Each setting comes with its unique set of problems—the dehumanization of corporate employees, the numbing effects of daily routine, and the ethical responsibility of facing up to a war initiated by the president your country has elected. But Baker's implicit solution is the same in each of the three novels: slow down, pay attention to the little things. In The Mezzanine this means giving deeper thought to ordinary objects, thereby revealing their underlying interestingness. In A Box of Matches this means taking the time each day to appreciate what is unique about your life (despite its superficial resemblance to so many other lives).

What it means in Checkpoint is slightly more complicated. Ben's advice (which could be the moral of most of Baker's books), to "keep to a small canvas," is certainly part of it—but here it's only a starting point. Ben's enthusiasm for photography is a reminder that life exists outside the realm of politics. Unlike Jay, for whom "everything's political," Ben is able to distinguish between politics and ethics, and to recognize the necessity of relegating politics to its proper level of importance. Politics is a means to an end, an end which for Ben consists at least partly in photographing trees.

Escaping into the minutiae of one's personal life is not necessarily the whole answer, though. Baker suggests as much in his portrayal of Ben's unwillingness to talk about squirmy issues like abortion. Jay, against abortion, argues that it's hypocritical for a person to be both anti-war and pro-choice. Ben's responses reveal a moral skittishness that may be disarmingly familiar to many readers (and reads suspiciously like a self-reproval on Baker's part): "I really don't want to debate this with you," he says. "It was better when we were talking about assassination, honestly."

The answer, then—the "solution" critics have searched for—apparently falls somewhere between Jay's moral outrage and Ben's outbursts of willful apathy. It involves striking a balance between the personal and the political. It also involves recognizing that political decisions ultimately affect people on a personal level, and moreover, that what we call politics is itself primarily a collection of people. The first point is implicit in Jay's empathy for the victims of the war in Iraq, but it's the second point that helps Ben to convince Jay not to go ahead with his plan to assassinate Bush:

BEN: [Bush is] a human being.
JAY: No he's not, he's forfeited that status.
BEN: He really hasn't. He's got that sudden smile that he makes when he's answering a question. Have you seen it? It looks like he's not sure how he's going to finish a sentence, and there's a second of panic, his brow furrows, and then—ah!—he thinks of a word that he can plug in there. A big presidential word. He says it, and he flashes that childish smile of relief. It's a little moment of pride—"I made it, guys."

Checkpoint's message could be thought of as an inversion of the adage "The personal is the political." That Baker offers this message in an irreverently insightful, consistently funny, brave-as-nails little book is a testament to the happy sneakiness of his literary project—which has always been of the utmost seriousness.

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Fall 2004 Table of Contents