"Checkpoint" by Nicholson Baker

This hot-button novel isn't bad because it's about a plot to kill Bush. It's bad because it can't face the real, understandable rage that can drive rational people to think the unthinkable.

By Charles Taylor
Published August 16, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

"The vanity of George W. stands out with every smirk. He literally cannot control that vanity. It seeps out of every movement of his lips, it squeezes through every tightlipped grimace. Every grin is a study in smugsmanship."

-- Norman Mailer, New York magazine (2004)

"There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not."

-- John McGiver, as Sen. Thomas Jordan, in "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)

Nicholson Baker's short novel "Checkpoint" does not, as advance buzz has suggested, advocate the assassination of George W. Bush. It would have been a more interesting book if it had.

"Checkpoint" is written as a dialogue between Jay, who is holed up in a Washington, D.C., hotel room and determined to assassinate Bush, and Ben, the friend he has summoned to hear his plans. Baker is trying to get at the way in which otherwise decent people can be deranged by an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. He is trying to capture the desperation and fear that people are feeling at the prospect of four more years of Bush. Despite Baker's skittish retreat from his premise, he manages to suggest a few vital questions: When does political protest become simply a way of putting up with the status quo? When should protest be abandoned in favor of direct action?

Baker has set up his dialogue as a debate between the id and the superego of anti-Bush feeling. Jay, the id, thinks all the opinion pieces have been written and Bush is so evil he needs to be killed "for the good of humankind." Ben, the superego, is a gentle NPR sort of liberal who believes that violence only leads to more violence and that Jay's act will "unhinge the world even more than it is unhinged."

In other words, in "Checkpoint" Baker has divided the left between a madman and a wimp. That might have worked if Baker had a taste for satirical blood. But Baker is too mild a writer to get his hands dirty in that way. That mildness is part of what's always been charming about Baker -- the weird attention to sensory phenomena, to ephemera. Baker was accused of a crass ploy to attract attention when he wrote the sexual fantasies "Vox" and "The Fermata." But with them, he produced two of most joyous, absolutely guilt-free books ever written about sex. And he couldn't have pulled that off if he seemed threatening. But Baker's eccentricities, the friendliness that allowed him to write so invitingly of sexual fantasies, is exactly what makes him inadequate to write about a moment when the political stakes are so dire.

There has been no other period in my life -- not during Watergate, not during Iran-Contra or the rest of the Reagan administration -- when picking up a morning newspaper seemed like such an invitation to begin your day in a state of crippling rage. The wish to know the worst has to fight it out daily with the desire to get through the day, to work, to spend time with your loved ones, to experience pleasure. There are people I know, not silly or shallow people or people easily given to anger, who cannot look at George W. Bush without simmering with rage. There are Americans who consider it part of their duty as citizens to pay attention to what the president says who have not been able to watch a Bush speech or State of the Union address.

For "Checkpoint" to have any teeth, Bush's prospective assassin would have to be one of those decent, reasonable, grounded people. And he would have to be allowed to make his case for killing Bush with an inexorable Swiftian logic.

But Baker is neither bloody-minded nor despairing nor serious enough to give us a good person brought to such a point. He hedges his bet by making Jay unbalanced to begin with. There is a reference to a past mental breakdown ("the bad time," Ben calls it) and there are stories of a checkered employment history, ruptured personal relationships, a general sense of drifting. They add up to a safety exit for Baker, a means of saying, "I put all these fantasies of killing Bush in the mouth of somebody who's not playing with a full deck."

What is the point of imagining such a premise if you defuse it before you begin? There is something cowardly about Baker's conception of his would-be assassin, an addled screw-up with fantasies of radar bullets and radio-controlled buzz saws that would fly to their targets. If anyone is looking for the real insult to George W. Bush in this book, it's not that an American writer has created a character bent (halfheartedly, it must be said) on killing him -- but that the writer cannot even take the prospect of Bush's murder that seriously. And that is also an insult to those of us who, as Janet Malcolm recently wrote in a letter to the New York Times, "are scared of what another four years of his administration will do to this country and to the world."

Malcolm's letter, and the perhaps imprecise historical analogy it contained ("We are in a time now that is as fearful as the period after Munich"), occasioned Leon Wieseltier to write, "This is what now passes for smart" in his Aug. 8 New York Times Book Review piece on "Checkpoint." Rightly chiding the intellectually sloppy (and historically insensitive) Bush-equals-Hitler analogies that have sprung up lately, Wieseltier nonetheless managed to sound like the supercomputer that rules the city in Jean-Luc Godard's "Alphaville," meting out punishment to anyone who deviates from strict rationalism.

I don't have much more patience than Wieseltier for loose talk, lazy analogies or demagoguery from either side. But if Wieseltier cherishes facts, then fear seems a perfectly reasonable reaction to the facts that have accumulated over the last few years. No one has done a better job of compiling them than Craig Aaron in "Missions Accomplished?" an article in the Summer 2004 issue of Dissent. This is the real "Fahrenheit 9/11," and one that doesn't need speciously strung-together factoids, half-truths and fictions to lay out a case against George W. Bush. There is the Justice Department's refusal to identify immigrants detained after 9/11 (Oct. 29, 2001); Rumsfeld's declaration that the Guantánamo prisoners had no rights under the Geneva Convention (Jan. 11, 2002); the report that Bush activated a shadow government following the attacks without telling Congress (March 1, 2002); John Ashcroft's permitting the FBI to monitor political and religious groups without probable cause (May 20, 2002); the April 17, 2002, report from sources in the administration admitting that military mistakes allowed Osama bin Laden to escape during the battle of Tora Bora; and a United Nations official's Oct. 29, 2003, warning that Afghanistan will "once more turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists." There are dozens of other items in a report that goes on for pages.

How do you read a Newsweek report from July that DeForest Soaries Jr., chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, wrote to Tom Ridge and asked him to give Soaries' commission the power to postpone the presidential election if there were a threat of terrorist disruption, and not feel fear?

Even the sober language of "The 9/11 Commission Report" can leave you in a state of rage. This is the passage in the report about the administration's response to the Aug. 6, 2001, Presidential Daily Brief headlined "Bin Ladin [sic] Determined to Strike in US":

"We have found no indication of any further discussion before September 11 among the President and his top advisers of the possibility of a threat of an al Qaeda attack in the United States. [CIA director] Tenet visited President Bush in Crawford, Texas, on August 17 and participated in PDB briefings of the President between August 31 (after the President had returned to Washington) and September 10. But Tenet does not recall any discussions with the President of the domestic threat during this period."

Wieseltier may think of "Checkpoint" as a "scummy little book." He is even right in identifying it as part of the degradation of political speech that affects the left as well as the right in this moment. He is right in saying that in condemning the Iraq war as an example of American power used for ill, some have refused to acknowledge that American power can be and has been used for good. But Wieseltier writes from an inhumanly lofty position. It may be that the wind flutters his silvery mane fetchingly at such a height. Yet nary a trace of fear or rage -- or even the consideration that such feelings are understandable right now -- flutter a syllable of his prose, and his intimation that only hysterics feel anything like fear or rage at this moment is superior.

Strangely enough, like Wieseltier, "Checkpoint" winds up dismissing that fear and rage as an unreasonable state.

It would be nice to think that Baker is using Ben to parody liberal ineffectiveness. Ben is the type of guy who tries to calm Jay's despair over the state of the world by telling his friend that the small pleasures of the world -- leaves and trees and fog -- are still there "for everyone to enjoy. So who cares then about George W.? He's irrelevant."

In that moment, Ben is immediately recognizable. He's one of the people Pauline Kael once wrote about, the ones who couldn't remember that in the original "Manchurian Candidate," when the liberal senator is shot, he appears to bleed milk. He is also, unfortunately, Baker's voice of reason. After sitting through "Fahrenheit 9/11," in which Michael Moore refuses to consider Bush or anyone in his administration as anything resembling a human being, or reading Tony Kushner's ludicrous agitprop play "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," which revels in a cultural superiority as elitist as anything ever spouted by the likes of Gertrude Himmelfarb or Allan Bloom, you might almost be grateful for Ben's dogged insistence that George W. Bush has not forfeited his status as a human being (especially if you don't share a Rousseauian view of what human beings are).

When Ben tells Jay that killing Bush would be a capitulation to the very violence Jay claims to hate in his target, Ben understands that the use of violence always diminishes us morally. If Jay had read Hannah Arendt's "On Violence" he would no doubt agree with Arendt that violence is always launched from a position of weakness, after negotiation or defense has failed. But like his creator, Ben seems unable to understand that violence is sometimes necessary, so he becomes an inadvertently damning portrait of liberal squeamishness.

In the middle of "Checkpoint," Baker has given Ben a speech in which he condemns every American president since Truman, presumably because, at one time or another, each one resorted to violence. It's useful to examine one or two of his points. Clinton is dismissed because, Ben says, "What's the first thing he does when he gets into office? He sends planes into Iraq, some 'sorties,' just to show he's no slacker." In the context of a book written in protest largely over Bush's invasion of Iraq, it seems strange that Baker would falsify the reason for that 1993 bombing raid. Clinton sent those planes because of an Iraqi plot to assassinate George H.W. Bush while the elder Bush was visiting Kuwait. The bombing effectively ended all Iraqi plotting against the United States. In other words, it made it even harder for George W. Bush to justify an invasion begun 10 years later on grounds of national security.

This myopia makes sense in a writer who has never evidenced a worldview larger than that of white, affluent metropolitan America. Ben's speech comes from a cushy, liberal, white, reasonably prosperous point of view. If Baker wanted to prove that Ben really had the courage of his convictions, then he needed to write a scene in which Ben confronts Southern blacks who can go to the polls and vote without being harassed, the elderly who have Medicare, the kids who have been through Head Start, and tries to convince them that Lyndon B. Johnson was a bad president. Baker would need to write a scene in which Ben justifies his revulsion at Clinton and Wesley Clark's bombing of Belgrade to the Bosnian Muslims who were saved from Milosevic's genocide.

There is, of course, a perk to turning away from war in genteel revulsion -- it spares you from dealing with the irresolvable, soul-dirtying choices war entails. The only effective protests against war are those that do not refuse to understand the nature of war. That's why there will never be any antiwar writers stronger than the great war memoirists and poets.

There is a lot of talk in "Checkpoint" about innocent civilian casualties and dead children to drive home the point that war is inhuman. There is no nice way to say this, but it seems to me that citing the innocent dead -- who are a fact of every war from the most justifiable to the most wanton -- is among the laziest ways you can come up with for opposing war. We should be sickened by the killing of innocents and should realize how inadequate it sounds in the face of human death to say that sometimes people have to die to prevent larger evils. We should also realize that, while always inadequate, it isn't always false.

That's the reality that Baker, in his niceness, cannot countenance. He knows that war is foremost and finally an inhumanity. But he resists sullying himself by even suggesting the existence of a possibility where someone of good conscience violates his sense of what's humane and decent by believing that sometimes violence may, despite the old homily, solve some things.

There is a model for how a novel can face that reality without turning into propaganda, without sacrificing a sense of humanity: Geoffrey Household's 1939 thriller "Rogue Male." Household's story is about a well-off Englishman who travels to a foreign country (read: Germany) to assassinate its leader (read: Hitler). He fails, manages to escape, and arrives back in England to find that a German agent has been sent to kill him. Since Britain is not at war with Germany, he cannot turn to the British authorities without being returned to Nazi Germany.

"Rogue Male" can be enjoyed as one of the most exciting thrillers ever written. It can also be read as a deadly serious proposal made in disgust at Neville Chamberlain and "peace in our time." Household ends the book with the words, "I begin to see where I went wrong the first time ... One should always hunt an animal in its natural habitat: and the natural habitat of man is -- in these days -- a town ... My plans are far advanced. I shall not get away alive, but I shall not miss; and that is really all that matters to me any longer."

It's easy to read that now as another historical what-if, the way we enjoy a Ken Follett novel. But when Household wrote that passage he was calmly laying out the most logical and successful manner for killing a real person, and he was saying that the murder of that person was the only way to preserve a reasonable concept of humanity and civilization.

I'm not saying that Baker would have written a better book had he advocated the murder of George W. Bush. I don't believe killing Bush would make the world a better place, and I don't believe Baker does either. But he's written a book that toys with the idea of killing Bush, and that toys with ideas about the Americans and Iraqis who have already been killed, without ever confronting the moral seriousness of either. Baker writes from a height nearly as removed as Wieseltier's, a very comfortable perch where inhumanity is something to be clucked over, not an abyss that must, at some point, be stared into.

"Checkpoint" is a bad book and finally a spineless one. Its shame isn't that it features a character who speaks in favor of assassinating a president but that it treats such a dire act and such a dire moment in our political history as occasion for another Nicholson Baker novelty performance, another opportunity to trot out the decent, ordinary nebbishes who populate his world. The world of "Checkpoint" turns American liberals into the inhabitants of a petting zoo.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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