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Killin’ mad
Nicholson Baker goes after Bush

Whatever else you say about Nicholson Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, it certainly is refreshing when a work of fiction can cause a scandal. In the literary world, the kind of thing that usually passes for scandal is an author snubbing an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey. There was way more talk about how Jonathan Franzen "handled" The Corrections than about what was actually in it.

So now we have Baker, of all people, who previously confined his outrage to the library, writing non-fiction pieces about libraries destroying their card catalogues and "de-acquisitioning" their inventory, including books and back issues of old newspapers. In fiction, he flirted with pornography in Vox (1992) and The Fermata (1994). His specialty in early novels like The Mezzanine (1988) and Room Temperature (1990) was a dizzying absorption in the minutiae of everyday life.

With Chekpoint, Baker has stepped into the realm of pop culture that includes Oliver Stone and Eminem and Fahrenheit 9/11. He may never earn the fatwah that was decreed on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses (perhaps the last time anyone took a novel seriously), but getting Leon Wieseltier to lambaste your "scummy little book" in a cover piece for the New York Times Book Review is a good start.

Checkpoint is a topical screed in the form of a taped dialogue. Jay has called his friend Ben down to a Washington hotel room to reveal his plan to assassinate President George W. Bush. Jay and Ben are clearly two educated middle-class white guys, high-school teachers, except that Jay — with a history of personal and professional problems — has gone off the deep end. Ben is the voice of reason, gently trying to dissuade him.

Through Ben, Baker is able to keep his narrative distance from Jay. A touch of comic sci-fi delusion also helps take the novel out of the realm of the real — Jay’s methods of assassination include "radio-controlled flying saws," bullets that are "self-guided" and "programmable," and a large boulder. Such devices also give the reader some breathing room. But there’s a lot of sense in all of Jay’s crazy talk, and he even manages to draw Ben into sympathy with some of his arguments.

On the one hand, you could argue that Baker is using Jay as a surrogate to cheapen the discourse about Bush and the Iraq war (part of a general trend, Wieseltier argues, of "liberal demagoguery"). But Checkpoint is about limits — of presidential power, of law, of discourse, of rationality, and of language itself. How can one find a vocabulary of reason when reason has been turned upside down? Jay points to the government’s denial of the use of napalm in Iraq and its, um, scummy concession: "Well, then, of course, it turns out that, well, uh, yes, they’re shooting missiles full of this goop that starts intense fires and, well, yes, they’re using it to burn people alive, and, uh, yes, all our Army commanders do call it napalm, but it isn’t technically napalm because it’s not naphtha-poly-toly-moly-doodlemate, whatever. Whatever the formula was when they first invented it back behind the stadium." The stadium, of course, is Harvard Stadium. "You’re a civilized person," Ben argues early on. "Not anymore," Jay answers.

The narrative takes its comic dips and turns in diction. Jay is so sputtering mad, he can’t even find the right obscenity. When he gets really excited, he yells "Jiminy Cricket," and groping for the right expletive to describe Bush, he blurts, "Penisfucker!" All the arguments and speculations pour out — Halliburton, the Wal-Marting of the American economy, Lynne Cheney’s serving on the board of directors of Lockheed ("They make the missiles that deliver the cluster bombs that destroyed those people"), the scandal of Abu Ghraib versus the scandal of 10,000 Iraqi dead.

It’s a given in Checkpoint that our going into Iraq was a mistake, a fraud, and that the results are criminal. The limits that Baker dramatizes are crystallized in the title metaphor. He brings us to an Iraqi checkpoint manned by US troops. Jay tries to tell the story early on but falters, then mentions it at the book’s midpoint. He can get it out only near the end. When the book transgresses with an imaginative fiction about the unsayable — the proposed assassination of a president — it doesn’t flinch. But Jay can barely relate an incident based in fact — the novel’s emotional climax. "They’re innocent, they’re innocent even of the knowledge that they are innocent," Jay says of the war’s victims. That’s the real transgression.

Issue Date: August 20 - 26, 2004
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