Whatever serious subject the novelist Nicholson Baker explores, we must never forget that he is also being at least a little funny. Fond of the brisk, improvisatory miniature and heir to the cerebral comedy of Donald Barthelme, he still can seem a little misunderstood by those who would read any of his fiction as a grinding axe. Baker is not, as Leon Wieseltier suggested recently in a review of Baker’s new novel, Checkpoint, in The New York Times Book Review, an attention-seeker, participating in “the politics of the sewer.”* (Much of Baker’s work is quiet to the point of prayer: his last novel, A Box of Matches, about a middle-aged man getting up every day before sunrise, reads like a prose poem to fire and dawn.) And although Baker is often interested in talk, and even wild talk, as Wieseltier correctly notes (Baker’s most famous novel, Vox, is about phone sex), he has this in common with most of the writers who ever lived.
Baker’s novels are largely obsessions with action vs. paralysis, of both the political and personal sort, and in his unusual explorations of this psychological mezzanine and classical theme (in The Fermata the protagonist can in fact freeze others and stop time; in Room Temperature an entire novel occurs while the protagonist rocks his baby to sleep; in his first novel, actually titled The Mezzanine, a torrential esprit d’escalier engenders a roaming book-length tracking of one man’s mind), he is something of an original, though one might be tempted to place him alongside the English novelist Geoff Dyer: both are the same age, both have published amusing, inward-looking tributes to another admired writer (Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage on D.H. Lawrence, Baker’s U and I on John Updike), and both use restless, unpredictable narratives to register the neurasthenic perils and pleasures of their own isolating hyper-self-consciousness—and do so without any masculine vanity whatsoever. This, I daresay, makes them disarming and endearing literary mavericks in the heterosexual world. Perhaps one of their differences is that Baker seems seldom to leave the house (in A Box of Matches a character airing a rug on the front porch railing is performing a gregarious public act) while the peripatetic Dyer—observing all-night raves in France (Paris Trance) or his own tears in his smeared fried eggs in Detroit (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It)—seems never to stay home.
Baker’s wit and literary context must be borne in mind when considering his most recent novel, Checkpoint, a dialogue between two men discussing the plusses and minuses of assassinating the President. One of the men, Jay, ostensibly has a plan to do so, but his mutating renditions of it are so laughably harebrained—one includes a final greeting to Condoleezza Rice (“Stick to the piano, baby!”)—that most readers will come to realize that Jay is less villainous than he is a composite of the various ways people give theatrical voice to moral indignation. His assassination fantasy is a mirror of the one the White House had first of Saddam Hussein and then of Osama bin Laden—a “decapitation” that even if realized would not have the political consequences he claims for it—just as it is perhaps mirrored in turn by Wieseltier’s own attempt to, well, assassinate Baker’s book (“This scummy little book” is Wieseltier’s own attention-grabbing opening).
Where does wild talk end, and something else more dangerous begin? Baker is only exploring this fictionally; Wieseltier, while committing his own wild talk in a nonfictional realm, may not actually understand this. He says of Baker’s creation of the would-be assassin, Jay, that strictly speaking Baker is not “inciting a crime,” though at novel’s end that “it may be the president is really in danger,” seemingly forgetting that these are fictional characters and that in a novel even someone called “President Bush” remains a fictional character. When Wieseltier lectures his readers that “neither John Kerry nor John Edwards appears to live in the universe in which Checkpoint was set or in the universe in which Checkpoint was written,” an embarrassing misunderstanding of the nature of fiction is revealed. Wild talk indeed.
So one must remember that Baker is funny, that he writes about paralysis inflamed by inaction, that he is interested in wild, even crazy, mock-heroic talk, and that he, as an American writer, is living in some of the most devastating years of American political history. What does a novelist like this—witnessing the world and taking note of his own as well as others’ perceptions—write? Why a novel that takes the form of a two-person radio play in which a “demented bum” named Jay argues his suicidal-homicidal political mission—“This is the one thing I have to contribute”—to a friend named Ben, who may or may not actually believe him, but argues back nonetheless, even to the point of desperately quoting Dr. Seuss (“a person’s a person no matter how small”):
Jay: And you’ve taken up photography.
Jay: It’s helpful to have a hobby. I have a hobby, too.
Ben: Jay, assassinating the president isn’t a hobby.
Jay: I’m sure not getting paid for it. It’s pro bono all the way. …And what are you going to do with these tree pictures?
Checkpoint’s Jay is furious about the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, that “patchwork country,” and this foreign policy’s dishonoring of a people: “I want to say, ‘Wolfowitz, you fuckhead! You’re killing people! You’re not humble enough before the mystery of a foreign country!'” and the triggering image for Jay’s fury is something he’s seen on the news, a fleeing Iraqi family, killed by American soldiers at a military checkpoint. What then takes over him is a citizen’s outrage intent on (or trying to seem intent on) shedding its powerlessness. First, using Ben and his tape recorder as a sounding board, he must wend his way through his many criticisms of the White House, from Rumsfeld’s fortune from Nutrasweet, to the bankrupt American economy, to Lynne Cheney’s denigration of Eminem:
Jay: Lynne Cheney, this merchant of multinational MISERY, man. It’s staggering when you take time to think about it for more than twelve seconds. And here she’s all in a flusterment about the nasty lyrics of Eminem.
Ben: Eminem is no favorite of mine.
Jay: Well, no, he’s not Zappa. But that woman, I’m sorry to say, is the real obscenity.
Ben: Oh, Lynne Cheney did some good things when she was at the NEH. You’ve got to lighten up a little. She’s not a viper. She was just on the board of directors.
Jay: How could she be on the board of that company and look at herself in the mirror? How can she look at her husband in the mirror? Halliburton and Enron and all that. Enron wangling to profit from the pipeline across Afghanistan. It’s a sickening spectacle.
Ben: Do you think they look at each other in the mirror?
Although Jay may never “lighten up,” as Ben suggests, it is Baker’s sensibility to allow his book to do so, letting it go wherever it’s tempted; the narrative clowns around at intermittent intervals bringing its own light to the dark, or the Cheneys to a mirror—the gallows humor that so often marbles grief and despair. “If what I do causes an upheaval,” says Jay, “okeydoke.”
Since now more than ever we live in a world of bomber-assassins who take their own lives along with the lives of others, their minds, from the outside, looking cracked with the determined, fantastical pageantry of misbegotten valor, Baker’s brief take on the workings of one such ostensible soul is as timely as fiction gets. It does not perhaps take us convincingly inside the suicidal part of such a person’s head, however—this part still feels dismissable as madness—but with the homicidal part he is much closer, and Jay is sometimes logical, even calm, in his arguments. “If you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe the living crap out of that ancient city—you are going to create assassins like me.” People want to make their lives meaningful in wicked times, just as writers want to make their novels meaningful, and Ben’s recommended alternatives—gentleness, love, photography, a puppy, copying out great books word for word into a notebook—however movingly simple or deeply believed or sweetly therapeutic, may not do the trick for everyone.
Political argument, of course, is easier than political literature. And one can wonder how Baker’s quick, stripped, cry of a book can succeed as the latter. But literature occurs when one feels life on the page. And one feels life most often when one hears more than one voice in conversation there. Does the reader of Checkpoint hear more than one voice?
Oh, yes. I think one doesn’t have to listen too hard to hear a roar.
November 4, 2004