Saturday, January 19, 2008

Checkpoint

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.

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