Saturday, January 19, 2008


Review of Nicholson Baker’s novel Checkpoint; Toronto Star, spring 2004.

Of all the writers who’ve lately run afoul of the do-as-we-say types on the American right – writers like Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Gore Vidal – Nicholson Baker may be the least likely culprit.

Sure, he earned some notoriety back in 1998, when it came out that his phone-sex novel, Vox, was on President Clinton’s reading list, courtesy of a certain intern. But in general Baker is known for cheerful fiction that, in the Seinfeldian phrase, is about nothing. Such early novels as The Mezzanine offer lengthy riffs on shoelaces, milk cartons and escalators – not exactly power-to-the-people stuff. Even when Baker did turn to public activism, in the mid-1990s, his cause of choice – preserving library card catalogues – was hopelessly nebbishy.

All that has changed with Baker’s new book, Checkpoint. Set in real time in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, the novel recounts a conversation between two men. One of them is planning to assassinate the U.S. president; the other is desperately trying to talk him out of it.

That the novel has drawn fire even before its publication is no surprise. After all, Don DeLillo took political flack for fictionalizing the JFK assassination 25 years after the fact in Libra – George Will accused him of “bad citizenship.”

Checkpoint is bolder. It discusses the logistics of killing a sitting president, repeatedly identified as George W. Bush, and its publication comes in the middle of the most divisive election year in decades.

This is a slim book – at 115 pages, it may be the thinnest of all Baker novels, which is saying something – and there’s an inescapable air of the stunt about it. At the very least, it’s intrinsically tied to its time, and while we can fervently hope that “its time” passes after the U.S. election in November, Checkpoint may well stay au courant for another four years. Beyond that, though, its shelf life is unclear.

The novel’s only characters are Jay and Ben, two middle-aged friends who have fallen out of touch in recent years. Jay has summoned Ben to D.C. with a vague plea to talk him through some life crisis. Upon Ben’s arrival, Jay gets a tape recorder going, and Checkpoint takes the form of a straight transcript of their hotel-room dialogue.

Almost immediately, Jay confesses his plans to take out George W. Bush later that very day. Ben is properly horrified, and thus ensues a conversational dance in which the two share their political outrage over recent current events while arguing about how to express that outrage, Ben ever trying to lure Jay away from his murderous intentions.

Their talk touches on their personal history (Jay has drifted from job to job and woman to woman, while Ben is a comfortable academic, married with two children) but mostly dwells on the abysmal state of the union, ranging from conspiracy theories to past CIA transgressions to the use of napalm in Iraq to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.

Many of Baker’s novels are defined by a strange friction. They take a restless approach to storytelling conventions (footnotes that intrude upon the main text, a disdain for drama or incident) even as their content celebrates musings that can only arise from complacency. After all, fussing about the problem of floating drink straws and other intricacies of industrial design is a privilege of the comfortable, no less so just because most of the Western world shares that comfort.

Yet at its best, Baker’s work has a mesmerizing quality that’s absent from the new book. In Checkpoint, the usual tension has been reversed: the subject is deadly earnest and the narrative approach familiar rather than fresh. So for all the weightiness of theme, the book feels like an inessential addition to the Baker canon.

In form Checkpoint closely resembles Vox, Baker’s other all-dialogue novel, though here the dialogue is more clipped, less leisurely. Baker aims for psychological suspense: When Jay talks of killing Bush with radio-controlled flying circular saws and guided rolling boulders, the reader wonders just how deranged the would-be assassin is, and just how serious. And there are clever and subtle touches: At the outset of the novel, Jay notes that Ben’s glasses were made in China, setting up a much-later riff on the exodus of manufacturing from the U.S.

Mostly, though, Baker’s novelistic aims are overshadowed by the urgency of his subject. Many, in fact, will doubtless read Checkpoint as a Fahrenheit 9/11-style political treatise, but Baker’s intent lies elsewhere. Most of the anti-Bush arguments that Jay and Ben trade off are about as cogent as Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” and if Baker wanted simply to denounce the administration, he’s a thoughtful enough writer that he could have done a better job.

No, his real interest is in making a point about the helplessness of the American people in shaping the political life of their country. An important theme, to be sure, but Checkpoint expresses it a little too baldly, and is a little too light on other rewards, to be a lasting novel.

The Headmaster Ritual

Review of Taylor Antrim’s debut novel, The Headmaster Ritual. Was in the Toronto Star last summer.

Even more than a regular high school, the boarding school must present an alluring setting for novelists: the usual teenage bellows and whimpers echo all the louder through close quarters, the air of oppression is all the thicker, the yearning for escape even more intense. So it goes in those old standbys A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye, and – more recently and more Canadianly – in David Gilmour’s 1999 novel Lost Between Houses. In the typical boarding school tale, teachers and other adults are distinctly secondary players, there to encourage or to oppose; the implication is that the kids are the really interesting ones, since their personalities and ethics are still in the process of solidifying.

The Headmaster Ritual, the debut novel from American journalist Taylor Antrim, is a typical boarding school tale in many ways. It takes place at a tony Massachusetts institute, and one of its major characters is James Wolfe, a shy, sensitive senior who’s bullied by his yahoo jock classmates and yearns for an unreachable popular girl – and who also happens to be the headmaster’s son, however chilly and distant his relationship with dad may be.

The other major character, though, is a teacher, Dyer Martin. When we meet Dyer in a prologue, he’s not long out of university, he’s living in Los Angeles, and he’s working for his girlfriend’s father’s real estate firm as an apprentice dealmaker. But he’s just been conned into committing half a million dollars of his company’s money for a worthless patch of land, and he fears he’s about to be fired. So Dyer runs: he leaves the job and the girlfriend and flees across the country to an entry-level post as a history instructor at the Britton School.

As that suggests, Britton’s rookie teacher is pretty callow himself, still finding his way in the world. He also has hs own daddy issues, having been raised by his mother after his father abandoned the two of them. So The Headmaster Ritual is a coming-of-age story, but a dual one: over the course of a year at Britton, both Dyer and James endure ordeals and embarrassments that eventually make them stronger. Some of the book’s most affecting scenes are near-stock scenarios of swaggering students bullying sensitive ones in the classroom or on the soccer field – but they’re presented from Dyer’s point of view, capturing his bewilderment and helplessness.

Antrim also plays with conventional notions of the boarding school as some cloistered environment that magnifies petty personal dramas while holding off the wider world. The novel’s action takes place amid news headlines about nuclear posturing from North Korea and vague threats of repercussions from the U.S. Antrim walks a couple of careful lines here: the political stuff gives the book a timely frisson without unduly tethering it to the headlines, and the geopolitics aren’t there just for texture, but are integrated into the main action. That’s because Edward Wolfe, Britton’s headmaster (and James’ aforementioned aloof father) is an aging lefty radical – and an open and fervent North Korea sympathizer.

Wolfe is an enigmatic and imperious presence, with an agenda that pulls in both Dyer and James and drives the novel’s main engine of suspense. The headmaster takes a special interest in Dyer’s senior world history class and press-gangs the young teacher into recruiting several students – including James – to form a delegation for a mock United Nations conference in New York City. Wolfe then ensures that the Britton group will represent North Korea at the event, and as it draws nearer he appears to be having secret meetings with a mysterious Korean man.

All this political intrigue is well paced and well played. I’ll avoid spilling further details, but suffice to say that the conspiracy of course comes to a boil at that mock UN meeting. And while the climactic events are a little outlandish, they don’t overpower the characters’ stories, but rather complement and bolster them. James’s flickering allegiances and resentments in particular are well handled throughout the novel: he’s tormented by an unfulfilled crush and by a tough-guy friend who acts alternately as bully and protector. These relationships play out in intriguing ways, and Antrim resists the temptation to simplify things for the sake of resolution.

He has a little more trouble with his older protagonist, though. Dyer’s relationship with his mother and abortive romance with a fellow teacher seem stiff, perfunctory. And in spots like that, the novel especially suffers from Antrim’s workaday prose, which lacks a certain unpredictable spark. Overall, though, The Headmaster Ritual is an unusually satisfying first novel.

Ghost Town, Robert Coover, Prop.

A Robert Coover interview/profile, done way back in 1998 on the occasion of (a) a new novel, Ghost Town, and (b) an appearance at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. (For some stupid reason or other, I ended up missing Coover’s IFOA appearance.) This is the long version, which ran in my friend Dave’s fanzine Filler; a shorter one ran in eye weekly.

Grand success stories like David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest may have sparked a minor resurgence in form-stretching fiction, but that hasn’t much changed life for old-school postmodernist Robert Coover. Ghost Town, Coover’s most recent novel, was published last September to little of the fanfare that accompanied, say, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, and Coover’s first visit to Toronto — he read at the annual International Festival of Authors in October — was likely unremarked by many of the same readers who had lined up for, say, Don DeLillo the year before.

With or without a sizable audience, though, Coover has been pushing fictional boundaries for over thirty years. His first novel, 1966’s The Origin of the Brunists (about a weird religious cult in a small mining town), won the William Faulkner Award, and since then he’s produced a savagely satiric body of work — sometimes dense and confrontational, sometimes compulsively readable. Coover is probably best known for the oft-anthologized short “The Babysitter,” with its dizzying twists in chronology, and the lit-course mainstay The Universal Baseball Association, J. Henry Waugh, Prop., which lends new creepiness to the term “fantasy league.” Those who delve further into his career, though, will find everything from eroticized odes to power politics (Spanking the Maid) to fresh takes on old fairy tales (Pinocchio in Venice, Briar Rose) to mammoth political epics that marry historical fact and ludicrous fantasy (The Public Burning).

An Iowa native, Coover attended university at Southern Illinois and Indiana before heading to Chicago for graduate work. He reports that although he’d been interested in writing all his life, he didn’t consider it a vocation until the summer after he got out of the Navy, when he “holed up in a cabin, out on an island near the border of Canada and the U.S.” Here he hit on what would be a career-long interest in “all the stories we get from early childhood on: fairy tales, religious stories, patriotic stories, family stories.” Asserting that “stories and language and how we tell a story are all significant,” Coover confesses to a fondness for “disturbing the waters” of various narrative archetypes — “whichever one catches my fancy from time to time.”

This willingness to “stir things up” has occasionally produced brief flashes of controversy. Spanking the Maid, the cyclical, dreamy tale of a man who begins each day by, well, spanking his maid, sparked feminist protests in New York upon its 1982 publication. And the release of The Public Burning (1977) — a cartoonish reimagination of the 1953 execution of alleged Communist spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, complete with “narration” from then vice-president Richard Nixon — was delayed, in circumstances that are still obscure; it is believed that publishers feared legal action from the Nixon camp. (The experience was clearly nightmarish for Coover, though he notes happily that a similar book written in 1999 would likely not encounter such problems. “I wrote The Public Burning before Saturday Night Live,” he says, “and there’s been so much opening up of political satire since then.”)

Spanking the Maid and The Public Burning represent two extremes in fictional scope: the former is short and compressed (more of a novella, really), the latter long and epic. Since Coover’s books have varied greatly in length throughout his career, one wonders at the writing process: Are the shorter books products of extensive cutting? Does Coover know, when he sets out, whether he’ll be running a sprint or a marathon? No to both, as it turns out. “I think my preferred length,” says Coover, “the one that I’m happiest with, is that of Spanking the Maid or Whatever Happened to Gloomy Gus of the Chicago Bears — that sort of novella-length work.”

However, once he starts writing, Coover often finds that he has little control over the matter. “I often think I’m writing a one-pager, or something very short, and it’s only when I sort of open up the story, and see what’s inside it, that I see what it’s trying to tell me.” His works in progress, Coover claims, inevitably follow surprising directions. “I may do a lot of structuring — I write out outlines, how it’s going to move, what all’s going to be in it — but those things get overwritten quickly enough as the text begins to take off on its own. And sometimes I think I’m going to have a big piece and it just suddenly finds a way to come to a natural end much sooner than I thought — that’s rare, but it’s fun. The more natural tendency is to keep going, becoming massive and challenging.”

Whether or not Coover is being disingenuous when he describes his projects taking on wills of their own, this, er, organic view of the composition process would seem to resist extensive editorial collaboration — a suspicion Coover confirms. His best editors, in Coover’s view, have been the ones “who’ve known how to just do the best for the book once they’ve decided they want to do it.” Changes made during the publishing process have been limited to “very minor copyediting alterations,” with more structural or substantive revisions unheard of. “I spend a lot of time going over and over these texts,” Coover says, “and I haven’t found anybody in the industry sharp enough, or literarily-minded enough, to make judgments like that.”

Not surprisingly, Coover’s penchant for demanding prose has occasionally run him into trouble with the accounting departments of publishing houses. “My work has never been best-seller stuff,” he says, which makes for a career of small advances and limited financial recompense. (Coover reports that even the income from The Universal Baseball Association, arguably his most popular book, has been minimal.) Not that he’s complaining. “I count on a continuity of readers, rather than a broad base of readership at any given time. A best-seller is a book that gets to a lot of people who just aren’t readers. That’s certainly the case with Cold Mountain [Charles Frazier’s wildly successful 1997 novel] — although I think it will have a lasting life, I know it’s being read by a lot of people who haven’t read a book in years. That’s a remunerative readership, but it’s not a very rewarding one.” With his current publisher Henry Holt, Coover has at least found some measure of stability: Ghost Town is the first of a contracted three books.

Perhaps Coover’s future royalty statements will benefit from the recent renewal of interest in experimental fiction. Big, attention-grabbing books like Wallace’s, Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s seem to have reawakened the reading public’s appetite for fictional worlds unlike the quotidian ones of, say, Raymond Carver or Richard Ford. “I never really saw it go away,” Coover says of the apparent revival of the postmodern impulse, “but then I was close to young writers, and I could see a continuous interest in disruption of form. Minimalism and dirty realism got big press because they were easy to read, easy to review, and easy to sell, but I could see that all along that there were people like Wallace.” Still, Coover’s own recent work, like that of his contemporary John Barth, remains largely ignored by the mainstream media.

However, financial pressures must be eased by Coover’s full-time gig: for 20 years he has taught creative writing at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Coover specializes in hypertext, the study of computer-driven reading and writing, in which narrative flow is nonlinear and interactive — indeed, often controlled by the reader, not the author. “It’s an essential creative difference in form,” says Coover. “You can move any book into the computer, but you can’t move just any text out.” Coover’s interest in new technologies and their application to storytelling dates back to the ’60s, when he made a short documentary film “just to understand the process.” He also embraced word processing very early, one of the first in the Brown community to do so: “I used to sit and work in a room next to the mainframe itself.” (Interestingly, though, Coover says computer composition did nothing to actually influence the way he wrote, conceding only that “it made a lot of things I wanted to do easier” in terms of cutting and pasting text.)

As for the technology that has wrought hypertext, Coover felt early on that those who ignored it would end up “disenfranchised, illiterate, disempowered.” Still, he does acknowledge the validity of some concerns, both practical and aesthetic. (Chief among these, at least to my mind, is the lack of evidence that most readers actually want to usurp the author.) And the rise of the Internet seems to have even Coover fearing for fiction’s future; he sounds almost nostalgic recalling the days when hypertext meant “dealing with diskettes and CD-ROMs,” and admits that “text’s future is not as clear as it was to me three or four years ago — what looked very promising looks less so now.” Still, says Coover, “you do worry about the loss of the reading experience, but I think it’s wrong to put your head in the sand.” Accordingly, he is helping to organize a conference at Brown — slated, he says, for sometime in the spring of 1999 — with the objective of arriving at “some sense of how words of how words are going to survive.” Besides international poets and writers, Coover hopes to also attract attendees from the technological industry — say, represntatives of Intel or Microsoft.

For now, Coover still publishes in the old-fashioned way, and Ghost Town, his third novel in two years (following John’s Wife and Briar Rose, both in 1996), is a compact, compressed sendup of the conventions of the western genre. Beginning with a lone drifter atop a horse, the novel charts a haphazard narrative course through a hallucinatory, anarchic world of cattle rustlers and lynch-happy posses, rowdy barrooms and deserted banks, stern schoolmarms and scheming whores. Distinguished by non-sequitur plot turns and Coover’s demanding virtuoso prose, Ghost Town is not for the faint of heart. Indeed, the stock settings, the splashy cartoon violence (including surprise resurrections), and the protagonist’s ever-shifting goals often produce a disconcerting literary-video-game effect. “That’s the metaphor of the ghost town,” says Coover. “Things are never as they appear.”

Coover’s work within the western format dates back to his 1972 play The Kid (which he cites as Ghost Town’s direct antecedent). Driven since then to produce “a massive epic” containing “all the various characters in the west,” Coover began only after conceiving the book’s central image: the ghost town gliding past the lone rider on the desert plain, overtaking him from behind. “As I followed the impulses of this visual image,” he says, “everything got crushed into this quite short narrative.” He was still driven, though, “to make sure every element of the western was tucked in there somewhere, even if only a mention.”

Coover’s perennial interest in genre will also inform his future work. He describes his next book as “a collection of short fiction dealing with children’s themes,” and he’s also working on a long novel premised on yet another cultural institution: the porn film. Centering on a character dubbed Lucky Pierre (Coover won’t divulge the working title, but he does give me that much), the book will comprise nine novella-length sections, “representing nine reels, and nine filmmakers.”

While we’re on the subject of titillation, I have to ask the author of The Public Burning — in which Richard Nixon trysts on the death-house floor with condemned spy Ethel Rosenberg, before being sodomized by the ghostly national mascot Uncle Sam — what he makes of Washington’s annus horribilis. Not surprisingly, Coover considers the situation more ludicrous than anything in his own fiction. “It’s pathetic, a case of Congress dropping its pants in front of the public, in front of the world. It’s silly, it’s funny.” Coover doesn’t rule out the possibility that the events in question may one day engage his own imaginative impulse, but not in the foreseeable future. “I think you have to let these things settle into the context of the time before you can manage them.”

Mark Haddon Q&A

In summer 2006, I did an e-mail interview with Mark Haddon, whose second novel, A Spot of Bother (the follow-up to the massive hit A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), was coming out that fall. My questions were strictly straightforward, but he was generous with his responses. Since this was for a Chatelaine front-of-book piece, said responses were then broken into tiny shards, two or three of which were picked up for publication. But here it all is in full.

After the huge success of Curious Incident, did you feel any pressure – from publishers or from yourself – when writing your second novel?

Obviously I felt some pressure after Curious Incident spread round the globe like a benign plague. Thankfully, however, it all came from me (my agent and publishers were blissfully unpushy). And that pressure was less a pressure to write an equally successful book, but to understand precisely why Curious had been so successful in the first place. It was a very peculiar novel. Consequently, unlike most novelists, I couldn’t simply write another book in the same genre, or the same voice, or with the same setting. But I did want to carry over something from one novel to the next. And I knew that once I had solved this puzzle half the job would be done.

In the end I decided that what made Curious work so well was a quality of empathy, a kindness, an interest in other human beings, not in spite of their failings, but because of them. And it is this, I think, which connects Curious Incident and A Spot of Bother. As Dan Franklin, my editor in London, said after reading the new novel, it’s like being in a different car going to a different destination, but you know that the same driver is at the wheel.

Because Curious Incident was such an unusual, one-of-a-kind novel, do you feel there’s more pressure with the second novel to establish “what kind of novelist” you are or anything like that?

It took me a long time to admit that Curious Incident was a good novel (it’s fantastic having written a bestseller but it’s hard to silence that nagging, doubtful voice which keeps asking whether you’ve written something that’s simply entertaining and easy to read). There’s a world of difference, however, between writing a good novel and being a good novelist. I’d love people to read A Spot of Bother and think I’ve managed to cross that divide.

You’ve said Curious Incident began with the image of the dead dog. What was the starting point for A Spot of Bother?

Actually, it’s not strictly true that Curious Incident began with the image of the dead dog. It began with many things coming together, as all half-decent novels do. The image of the dead dog was simply one of those things. It also happened to be the pithiest and funniest answer to a question I was asked several hundred times. And the one people remember most clearly.

As for A Spot of Bother, well, I wanted to write about nervous breakdown, I wanted to write about older people having sex, I was bored of reading novels in which gay men have perfect dress sense and thrillingly promiscuous lives, I liked the idea of writing in a way that was quite complex but seemed utterly artless....

From there, how quickly did you realize you wanted to write about various members of a family?

It was Donna Tartt, I think, who talked about novelists writing for a single voice, then writing for a group of voices and moving towards writing for the whole orchestra. Curious Incident was a piece for a solo instrument. A Spot of Bother is a quartet. Maybe the next novel will be a concerto.

Which character did you feel closest to as you were writing? Which did you feel least close to? (Or did you not think in those terms?)

I began with George’s story and initially I felt closest to him. But as the novel progressed I realised that I had to give equal weight to all four members of the family. And that it would only work once I had fallen in love with all of them.

George’s bout of mental illness is one of the major engines of the novel.What attracts you to that as a subject?

Show me the novelist who is not interested in the failings of the human mind.... We all spend a great deal of time in our own company, lying on the sofa thinking about what is going through our heads, and what might be going through other people’s heads. I’d go so far as to say that you can’t write a literary novel with being slightly obsessed with the way the mind works. And like all complicated machines, it’s only when it breaks down that you really begin to understand how it operates.

You’ve written children’s books, and Curious Incident was marketed to both adult and young-adult readers. Was there anything particularly liberating – or particularly challenging – about writing your first novel aimed solely at adults?

No, is the short answer, for the simple reason that when I wrote Curious Incident I thought I was writing for adults. The (rather brilliant) marketing strategy was something dreamed up afterwards by my agent and publisher. On the other hand, I am secretly looking forward to the fact that some fans of Curious will be, let’s say, “challenged” by some of the material in A Spot of Bother. I think all good art is slightly disturbing as well as entertaining.

Both your novels mix comic set pieces with dramatic, serious moments, to great success. Is that the kind of approach you most enjoy as a reader, too?

To be honest, I usually steer well clear of novels described as “comic.” “Experimental,” “dark,” “difficult,” those are the words that I find tempting on a flyleaf. I’ve just started reading The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and I’ve recently finished reading Villette by Charlotte Bronte (a novel which doesn’t really get going till, ooh, about page 250).

Though I guess you could describe my favourite novels (Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, Bleak House...) as comic in the broader sense of the word. None of them are going to make anyone laugh out loud, but they are imbued with a profound generosity and good humour. All of them are aware of the cruelty and harshness of the world but they never allow themselves to be poisoned by those qualities.