(*Well, it's "1000 Words" in name only - we blew the limit by about 1500 words but we got tired of complaining about the lack of intelligent critical coverage of the book, and decided to lead by example.)
Checkpoint: A Novel
“The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will.” Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, 1964
The problems inherent in reviewing a book like Checkpoint should be immediately apparent. To begin, an avalanche of pre-publication publicity has ensured that no one is without an opinion of the work, whether or not they’ve read it. Nicholson Baker’s reputation (deserved or not) as an author drawn to the shocking and scandalous further colors perceptions. Throw in a heated presidential election and a country with the most polarized electorate in recent memory, and it’s easy to forget – as many illustrious reviewers have – that there’s a book to talk about.
Four times in the history of the Republic, a president has been felled by an assassin’s bullets. And although it’s clear from the outset that Jay, the addled paranoiac whose plan to assassinate George W. Bush includes radio-controlled flying saws, homing bullets and a hammer, has absolutely no chance of becoming number five, the echo of other lone nutters from Lee Harvey Oswald to John Hinckley, Jr. lends the book a riveting, traffic accident air. (Jay’s plan to run in through a hole in the White House fence amounts to Suicide by Secret Service, one of several possible interpretations of the motives and events of Checkpoint.)
Much like The Satanic Verses, another book more howled about than read, Checkpoint is as much a Rorschach Test as it is a novel – how you view its charges is probably a good indicator of whether you’re a blue- or red-state dweller. And although an Ashcroft-issued fatwa against Baker strikes one as an unlikely scenario, enough Americans consider this a possibility, and it’s this constituency that gives Checkpoint a creepy effectiveness, in spite of its considerable novelistic defects.
Like Baker’s 1992 novel Vox, Checkpoint is novel told entirely through dialogue, a recording of a conversation between Jay and his friend Ben that takes place in a hotel room near the White House. Like much else in this thin novel, this device is ambiguous and open to interpretation. There’s a long, vainglorious history of would-be assassins capturing their testimony for the world at large, and Jay’s desire to do so plants him firmly in that tradition. At the same time, the novel can be read as a transcript of a tape recorded conversation – a transcript presumably found after an unspecified tragic event. Checkpoint is rife with such ambiguities of intention and design, which makes it stimulating cocktail conversation but unsatisfying literature. It’s a book that feels largely tossed off in a cathartic, passionate rush. But Baker is a writer of intelligence and skill, and Checkpoint is not without interest on a number of levels.
“There’s a huge gulf between thinking about something and doing it … I don’t think this particular book could inspire anyone to do anything bad because it’s based on an impossibility.” - Nicholson Baker, Baltimore City Paper
The preceding quote references not Checkpoint but rather Baker’s 1995 novel The Fermata, in which his protagonist Arno Strine has the power to stop time, and uses it to his carnal advantage. In the same interview, he goes on to say that “Of course it’s wrong to stop time and take off women’s clothes … But Arno’s drawn to it, and he hasn’t really figured it all out yet.” In The Fermata, Arno’s power is ultimate. In Checkpoint, Jay (and Ben) are powerless. And all three are trying to “figure it all out.”
Whatever you’ve heard, Checkpoint is not a novel about assassinating the president, any more than Moby Dick is a novel about hunting whales. Despite Baker’s incendiary trope, Checkpoint is really a meditation on helplessness. It’s also, at least passingly (if not always cogently), about the contagion of violence, about hypocrisy and it’s often mordantly funny to boot.
BEN: … Okay, they used napalm. That’s very bad. I agree. Shooting the head of state is not a solution.
JAY: I don’t like guns.
BEN: What are you, a swordsman? Are you going to flip a dagger into him?
The problem, however, is that the limitations imposed by the dialogue form Baker has chosen ultimately shut out the reader from the characters’ interior lives. There are glimpses rendered through dialogue – Ben’s love of photographing trees; Jay’s obsession with politics – but at a scant 115 pages, with nearly half given over to recapitulations of political or historical tides, neither Ben nor Jay spring fully to life in way that engages the reader. A few moments of minor tension emerge as Ben considers disarming Jay and turning him in but these are slight, artificial and quickly spent. It’s about the talk, stupid.
Longtime readers of Baker’s work will recognize many of his signature devices – a small cast playing out a largely action-less drama in a compressed time frame. The entire story can be distilled into a sentence. In a Washington hotel room, Ben tries to talk Jay out of his murderous plan. (The tape recording device has a 390 minute capacity and is turned off before it runs out.) And talk they do, ranging in subjects from the invasion of Iraq to the CIA support of Abstract Expressionism to free-range chicken farming. And although this may sound like vintage Baker, these topics are largely glossed over, touched upon and then abandoned, without the familiar Bakerian loving attention to detail (according to his fans) or obsession with minutiae (according to his detractors). There are exceptions, moments when the Baker of The Mezzanine surfaces, such as in this exchange about things still manufactured in America:
BEN: We still make antidepressants. That’s a cheery spot on the horizon. The pharmaceutical industry. Don Rumsfeld’s old stomping ground.
JAY: Pills, pickup trucks and war, that’s it.
BEN: That’s not really it.
JAY: That’s really it.
BEN: No, actually, seriously, we do still make balsa airplanes. I like those.
In some ways (probably not intended by the author), Checkpoint can be interpreted as a rebuke to Baker’s own earlier detail-laden self. After all, it’s at least partly due to information overload that Jay, an obsessive daily reader of political blogs, has snapped. Checkpoint’s amicus curae against the Bush administration bubbles over with so much information that the characters can only respond with an enervating helplessness. In an insightful essay on Baker’s oeuvre for The Believer (March 2003), Paul LaFarge points out the obvious drawback of Bakerian obsession: “If you think about a thing too much, you become like a thing.” Checkpoint is the story of Jay and Ben’s struggle against this thing-ness, and they are in many ways as zombie-like as Jay describes Cheney & Co.:
JAY: It’s as if these rusted hulks, these zombies, have fought their way back up out of the peat bogs where they’ve been lying, and they’re stumbling around with grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they’re going “We – are – your – advisers.”
Or they’re going “Must – kill – the – president.”
But it’s readily apparent that Jay will do no such thing (and here, Rush Limbaugh and other hysterics of the right would be well-advised to calm down). After all, the two men can barely pull themselves away from their room service steaks. They are too riven with contradiction to act. They decry Wal-Mart but somehow determine that Old Navy, Target and Barnes and Noble are OK. Jay wants to wipe out the administration but has an odd soft spot for Paul Wolfowitz, with whom he’d rather reason than kill. Equally conflicted, Ben - despite his passivity - finds violence catching, as he describes using $1200 large format professional camera to Jay. (That Ben, a historian, plays with such high end toys tells us much of what we need to know about him):
BEN: What’s happening is that the weigh of the camera in your hand – and remember, it’s a heavy camera – the holding of it is changing the way you look at everything. You look up at the buildings, the stonework up there – ah, and then you see the trees. You put your eye to the viewfinder and you’re in the lens.
This line of thought is taken to its obvious conclusion:
BEN: … I brought it into focus and the whole thing just came alive for me in the viewfinder. It was an incredible explosion of black twigs reaching in every direction. I was down to maybe a thirtieth of a second, and I squeezed the trigger –
JAY: The trigger?
BEN: I mean the shutter, the little button.
JAY: You’re as messed up as I am.
And Jay is right. Because both men have found themselves faced with circumstances beyond their reckoning, and so each withdraws, Ben into passivity, Jay into madness. Speech after speech probes and peels back their helplessness, none so effectively as this one:
JAY: One of the roofers was a kind of interesting guy who was trying to raise free-range chickens. Before work he’d drive out to some land and get all his chickens going. He had this enclosure that he moved around on the land, so that the chickens would have a new patch of grass to mess around in, and I have some thought to starting a chicken farm, but the guy said it wasn’t really accurate to call it a free-range, because the kind of chicken that customers expect, that restaurants expect, is a super, super fleshy chicken, it’s kind of a monster, and when a chicken puts on that much flesh, it can’t walk very well, so that even though it has more room to peck in than a factory chicken that’s been, you know, raised in solitary confinement, still it’s been bred for meat for so many generations that it’s really more or less imprisoned by its own bulk. One day we were having a drink and he was all upset because one of his birds had gotten its leg crushed under the frame when he was moving it that morning, so he had to slaughter it.
BEN: That’s unfortunate.
JAY: Yeah, he invited me over to his place and we ate the chicken. Kind of a wistful moment.
Free in name only. Overfed to the point of immobility. Jay’s world is a bleak one, and it’s small wonder he’s snapped. Ben, on the other hand, is hunkered down in his bunker. A historian studying the Cold War, his recent efforts include an examination of so-called “passive defense” (and in this mirroring, Baker’s a bit too neat), which entailed spreading out American resources to be less vulnerable to nuclear attack. Ben contents himself with pragmatism – Bush will win or lose, and then he’ll be gone either way – as he retreats into his expensive toys. It’s interesting – and probably meant to be damning – that Ben is far more uncomfortable discussing Jay’s pro-life stance than he is discussing Jay’s assassination plans, but Baker doesn’t pursue this thread far enough. In the end, Baker has staked out two possible responses to overwhelming helplessness but, as they’re assigned to little more than straw men, neither response satisfies or resonates, and one is left wishing ardently for a third way.
It may be that, more than Vox or The Fermata, Checkpoint’s most relevant antecedent is Richard Hofstadter’s landmark 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In this passage, Hofstadter could well be describing Jay:
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
It’s more than likely that Baker is well familiar with this essay. Numerous touchstones – from “totally unappeasable” to “hopelessly unrealistic goals” – thread their way through Checkpoint. It’s ironic that when Hofstadter was writing, he was describing the right-wing. Does Baker mean to suggest that things have come full circle? That, with the left succumbing to similar paranoid tendencies, the (r)evolution is complete? (Certainly his critique of the left’s stance on abortion suggests that he discerns a bit of moral rot there.) As with so much else in Checkpoint, it’s hard to say. It’s incidentally amusing that Hofstadter’s description of what he calls the “pedantry” of the paranoid bears echoes of Baker’s signature style:
McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies.
None of which is meant to suggest that Baker himself is either a paranoid or right-wing – many, if not most, of his objections to the current administration hold up (if you share his politics) or at least merit serious response (if you don’t). It’s entirely too easy to toss the book aside as “pornography” or “scummy” and we do so at our own risk, for as Hofstadter reminds us in the closing of his essay:
“We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
Checkpoint is a flawed polemic, and like most overtly political fiction, its shelf life is likely to be short, its value more as a cultural artifact than as a novel. But it’s time for Baker’s critics to distinguish between the real world and fantasies. It’s about the book, stupid.