Nicholson Baker’s latest book, Baseless, is stuffed with examples of just how inventive we humans can get when devising ways to harm one another. Most of these are biological and chemical weapons cooked up by the American military-industrial complex in the middle of the twentieth century. They include diseases cultivated in laboratory conditions and tools for spreading those diseases, like bombs filled with spore-coated feathers or nozzles designed to be attached to airplanes, the better to shower sickness on enemy cities. In one depressing chapter, researchers at a Montana lab funded by the military exposed ticks and other insects to highly infectious diseases, hoping to turn them into miniature airborne weapons of war. Baker doesn’t always know which of these weapons were deployed and which never left the laboratory. But he despairs that these weapons ever existed in any form. He despairs that they were government-funded. And he despairs that government secrecy makes it hard to know their stories in greater detail. In some passages, despair just about wafts off the page.
Baker starts with a specific historical question: “Did the United States covertly employ some of its available biological weaponry—bombs packed with fleas and mosquitoes and disease-dusted feathers, for instance—in locations in China and Korea?” In the 1950s Chinese, North Korean, and Russian authorities leveled this charge multiple times, most prominently in a 1951 complaint from North Korea’s foreign minister to the United Nations. Then and ever since, the US government has denied the charge, dismissing it as Communist propaganda.
But Baker has his doubts. He admits early on that he can’t prove what happened, so he’s not really arguing for any specific account of the past. Instead, he’s insisting that doubt is well-founded—that he has ample reason to question the official government line. After all, it is easily established that we worked to develop dozens of weapons of exactly the type the North Korean foreign minister accused us of using: Is it really so implausible that, at least once, they were deployed? This question becomes, along the way, part of Baker’s argument for more government transparency and a more muscular Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We need better access to our own history, he suggests, to fully know who we are. Otherwise all we have besides our known sins of commission is a vague cloud of further poisonous possibilities. (In a recent controversial cover story for New York magazine, Baker takes a similar approach to the Covid pandemic, detailing his suspicion that the outbreak began with a laboratory accident; he doesn’t seek to establish that this is what happened, but rather that his suspicions are justified and that further investigation of the question is vital.)
Baseless also features—jarringly, at first—lots of warm writing about quotidian delights. Dinner and a movie at home with your spouse. Visits with children. The recurring green of spring grass. Most memorably, there are several passages about the small, intense pleasures of living with dogs. Two specific dogs: Cedric and Briney, adopted by Baker and his wife after she spotted them on a local Humane Society website. Here is one example:
I was sitting on the bed in the dark, typing, when Cedric came over and set his long nose down on my keyboard. He made wheezing, moaning sounds, very human sounds, as if he wanted to tell me something autobiographical. I held my hand for a long time on his small, warm head. Every dog has a novel in him. Then he curled up nearby on the covers and went to sleep.
When I woke up whenever it was—hours ago now, I guess—I reached out with my hand and found that Cedric had scooted up so that he was elongatedly sleeping between M. and me. My hand found his paw. I held his paw for a while and felt the braille of joy of his paw pads.
At first glance, the repetition of “paw” might seem clumsy, but to me it wonderfully evokes what it’s like to put your human hand on a canine paw pad, each pad distinct from yet also essentially the same as its neighbors. And also: elongatedly! The word stretches out just like the pup it’s describing.
But what are chemical weapons and canine cuteness doing together in the same book? The more we hear about Baker’s journeys in government archives and about Cedric and Briney, the clearer it becomes that Baker isn’t just writing about cold war history and transparency. He’s also implicitly posing a set of intertwined questions about life and art: How are we to conceptualize the coexistence of the secrecy-shrouded horrors of modern war with all of our world’s little delights? Can writing help us feel our way toward some answers?
If you are familiar with Baker’s work, the idea of his mulling weaponized chemical atrocity might be surprising. In his first decade as a published writer, he established himself with short, elegant novels that were much less concerned with plot, or at least any conventional definition of plot, than with the rhythm and texture of everyday American life. These novels’ first-person narrators aren’t the type to obsess over government secrecy. They’re happily absorbed by the real-time whorls and eddies of their own largely unexceptional—which is not the same thing as boring—experiences.
Baker’s debut, The Mezzanine (1988), unfolds entirely during its narrator’s lunch hour, during which he does little but buy a new pair of shoelaces and a carton of milk. He keeps his eyes open, wonders at the mysteries of life, and takes a childlike pleasure in the existence of escalators and toilet seats, the sheer abundance of experience that is available to an observant passerby, all the obscured history embedded in every second of perception. His second novel, Room Temperature (1990), followed a similar conceit, unfolding entirely during a new father’s attempt to feed his infant daughter a bottle of milk. Along the way the father ponders the philosophy of picking your nose, the role of secrets in marriage, and Robert Boyle’s General History of the Air. There is no real conflict; instead, Baker’s prose attempts to evoke the fluid musicality of interior time.
This mode—lyrical appreciation not just of the world but of how it feels to be an individual capable of perceiving it—is probably what Baker is still best known for. Some subset of readers might associate him more with his three sex novels (for lack of a better term), which together celebrate the limitless potential of sexual fantasy, whether private or shared. Vox (1992), the best of the lot, takes the form of a transcript of a phone-sex call between strangers with Baker-esque skills for using language both to capture pleasure and to create pleasure for someone else (your sexual collaborator, your reader). In 2011 The New York Times called Baker “the mad scientist of smut,” but I doubt many readers actually see him that way. In truth he’s a mad scientist of the everyday, which at times includes some sexy bits.
Because we like to associate our authors with just one quality (their brands, dare I say), it is easy to overlook that Baker has for some time had a distinct thread of moral and political anger running through his work: anger at what people with power get up to in the shadows, anger at how they lie about it and cover their tracks, anger at how we forget. This anger is closely connected to his lifelong passion for accessible, high-quality archives.
Baker’s Double Fold (2001) is an incensed polemic that accuses American librarians and archivists of complicity in a collective crime against history: the reckless destruction of valuable original copies of newspapers and books in favor of inferior, sometimes unusable microfilm and digital facsimiles. Human Smoke (2008) is a collage of historical snippets—many of them culled, it seems likely, from the same newspaper archives valorized in Double Fold—arranged to suggest that the American and British pacifists who opposed their countries’ involvement in World War II were correct to do so, and that our cultural sense of the war as a thoroughly just one functions to obscure the racism and imperial greed of the Allies. This review is not the place to consider the merits of that argument, which drew harsh criticism at the time; I mention it to remind us that Baker is interested not just in celebrating human potential but also bemoaning its misuse.
By the time Baker published Human Smoke, he had already explored political rage in his fiction. Checkpoint (2004), like Vox, consists entirely of a fictional telephone conversation, this one between two old friends. Ben and Jay both loathe President George W. Bush, viewing just about every practical aspect of the so-called war on terror—occupations, torture, drones—as a moral stain. The friends disagree, however, about what to do with their rage. Ben, an academic who researches cold war secrets, wants to attend protests and wave signs and vote Bush out of office. Jay wants to put a bullet between the president’s eyes. He already has the gun, he says, and he has no patience for his old friend’s moderation. “No, Ben,” he says, “this guy is beyond the beyond. What he’s done with this war. The murder of the innocent. And now the prisons. It’s too much. It makes me so angry. And it’s a new kind of anger, too.”
I remember reading Baker’s first post-Checkpoint novel, The Anthologist (2009), shortly after its publication, during the first autumn of the Obama administration, and wondering if the transition of power had freed him to return to his original, and perhaps preferred, mode: life-awed celebrant-in-chief. The book’s narrator, a poet named Paul Chowder, is in a rut: low on cash, way behind schedule on the introduction he’s supposed to be writing to a poetry anthology he edited, and living alone since the departure of his frustrated girlfriend, Roz. We listen in as Chowder muses on the nature and potential of poetry—and all the other poignant shards of beauty and grace an average day offers, even when we procrastinate and make a mess of things. The pleasurable rituals of laundry. The fun of washing our dogs. The reflection of sunlight off a mountain in the distance. The closest thing to politics (conventionally defined) that pops up is a single glancing mention of fraud and waste at the Pentagon. But it doesn’t send Chowder reaching for a protest sign, let alone a gun.
Four years later, though, when Chowder returns in Traveling Sprinkler (2013), something has changed. His style of narration is basically the same. He’s still trying to get Roz back, and still working on poems. But he’s also stewing, like Jay in Checkpoint, about the war on terror—about torture and drones and classified kill lists. Like Jay, the Chowder of 2013 especially loathes the CIA, viewing the agency as a prolonged, tragic lie: a dank cesspool of bad actors fundamentally uninterested in the ideals of democracy they claim to defend. He wants to pour his anti-CIA, anti-torture, anti-drone sentiments into a poem, or maybe even a song. (Before the book came out, Baker posted videos of himself performing several original protest songs on YouTube.)
But Chowder is often dissatisfied with his musical compositions, and sometimes wonders if putting on a “misery hat” to write songs and poems about the evils of history is pointless. “I don’t want to spread the knowledge of evil,” he says. “I just want to know about love.” But he can’t take the misery hat off, at least not all the way, or all of the time. Toward the end of the book, he finishes—with help from some music production software—a protest song that he is more or less satisfied with. It’s about a young Afghan woman named Roya he learned about online. In 2002 her house was hit by a drone strike; she and her father survived, but her mother and two brothers died. Chowder thinks:
I can’t keep from wearing the misery hat sometimes…. Roya lived through something inconceivable. She survived, but barely. And my job was to think about her, right then, because we were responsible. We did this to Roya—with our missiles, our taxes, our Air Force, our targeters, our elected government. We exported a war into her young life. I thought, What can I possibly do to help Roya and her father? And the answer was: Nothing. There was nothing I could do…. I went outside and sat in my car for twenty minutes, and then I drove home and began making a song out of piano and Turkish oud and the Alchemy plug-in and percussion. The only thing I could do that had any possible meaning was to write a short, inadequate piece of music about the missile attack that destroyed Roya’s life.
And that’s what I did. I wrote a two-minute song with one word in it: Roya. I put fear in it and panic, and I sang Roya’s name several times at the end. I tried to put the imagined insanity to a beat. The song will not help her. It’s not a comforting song. It’s not a good song. But it is a way of remembering. It’s a way of paying attention to a single event by surrounding it with many notes. The notes point like arrows to the wrong.
And then I took off the misery hat and gently put it away in a box.
It would be easy to dismiss this passage as yet another embarrassing example of a white American author borrowing pain from abroad to give his lyrical musings a splash of geopolitical relevance. But I feel the presence of something more honest: an artist pushing up against the outer limits of his own habits and reflexes—then reporting back on what happens, because that’s what artists do.
In the introduction to Baseless, Baker recalls that he started trying to write about cold war chemical weapons in 2012, but was stymied in ways that will be familiar to any researcher who has tried to piece together a story involving information hidden in our national patchwork of underfunded, slow-moving, and byzantine record-keeping bureaucracies. Time and again, Baker failed to get access to important documents that he knew existed—or, when he got them, they were redacted to the point of unintelligibility, the pages covered with the visual equivalent of, in his words, “loud, crackly static.” At the same time, Baker was always learning more:
Because I carried around with me one unanswered question, all these repositories came alive. Newspaper collections spoke to me in a new way…. One question broke open and led to another and another, and formerly dull-seeming tidbits of history glowed like fresh cherry tomatoes in the picnic salad of the twentieth century.
For years, Baker kept the book on hold, trying to gather all the strands, hoping certain documents would come his way, turning to other projects in the meantime. Rereading Traveling Sprinkler with this in mind is fascinating: we see the research from one project seeping into another, forcing Baker/Chowder to wear the misery hat. For seven years Baker waited on the CIA, the air force, and the army for documents he knew might never arrive. He worried that he would die without learning what he needed to write the book he wanted to write. (Reviewing Baseless for The Nation, the New York Times national security reporter Charlie Savage wondered why Baker never initiated a lawsuit against any of the agencies stonewalling his FOIA requests, the way the deep-coffered Times often does; Savage also admitted that such lawsuits are “exceedingly difficult” to win.)
In March 2019 Baker decided to start writing anyway, not the chronological history he had originally planned but instead a more Baker-esque project: a series of daily diary entries. “I abandoned chronological succession,” he writes, “and just wrote, every day, about what I knew, and didn’t know, and what I needed to know.” He also resolved to let some of his own experience seep in: “Dreams, the weather, dogs, food.” The hope, clearly, was that setting up an arbitrary unit of time—like the lunch hour of The Mezzanine or the bottle-feed of Room Temperature—as a boundary would keep the material from spiraling digressively out of control, while also giving it the feel of life. In the end, he wrote a total of ninety entries, and edited them only lightly before publication.
It’s a defiantly odd book about history and about waiting, about learning and about knowing that you’ve failed to learn. In one entry, Baker describes some real or proposed midcentury US chemical weapons program. In the next, he fulminates against the Kafka-esque failures (failures by design, some might say) of the Freedom of Information Act. Or he sketches miniature portraits of people he admires because of their devotion to protesting bioweapons or wresting classified information from government clutches. He suggests possible solutions, some more sober than others: a smooth path to declassification for all documents over thirty years old, automatic declassification for those over fifty, more money for government archives, banning the CIA outright. He muses about mortality. He bemoans all the malice and hypocrisy coursing through American history. He tells us about the movies he’s watching, what’s for dinner, the dogs.
It is not always the most entertaining or absorbing read. By Baker’s own admission, he is simply unable to tell one unified story, and he doesn’t impose fiction’s sense of harmony over his material. (At one point, he reflects that he is “pushing myself past what I can do”; rereading his entries toward the end he finds himself “wondering what I was thinking” and feels “a great misery and a physical shivering coldness.”) As a result, there is much of interest along the way, but no strong current to carry it all along. On my first read, I experienced this as a fundamental flaw. The second time through, though, I approached things differently. Each day I read just one or two entries, often over a cup of tea, sometimes with my own dog, Enzo, nestled on or near me, paw pads in reach. This is the method I recommend. Read all at once, the book’s facts threaten to dissolve into a depressing gray porridge. Absorbed just one or two entries at a time, they stand a higher chance of keeping their shape.
When they do, the effect achieved is an important one. This is where Cedric and Briney really shine. Most stories about unsavory state secrets fall into one of two categories. Category 1: carefully researched and written works of history and journalism. Category 2: spy thrillers featuring characters who—unlike well over 99 percent of Americans—live and operate in the “intelligence community,” giving them some literal proximity to either the wrongdoing or the coverup. These are both perfectly sensible, valuable strategies for talking about government secrets and crimes.
But I worry that, by virtue of repetition, they have the unintentional effect of making the “secret world” feel like a distant planet: undeniably important, perhaps, but unreachable by the likes of you and me. The more unreal government secrets feel, the less able we are to reckon with them. Every time Baker swerves from government-funded, classification-shrouded dreams of mass infection to his dogs, he creates a visceral reminder of what should be obvious: that all these phenomena exist in the same world. Our world. This modest-sounding payoff is actually quite startling in practice; again and again, reading Baseless, it hit me like a little electric jolt. This is about more than pointing toward wrongs: there’s a suggestion, too, that we often file these wrongs—and our longstanding uncertainty about them—in the incorrect psycho-cultural boxes, where they become impossible to truly process.
In the 1986 film The Whistle Blower, an idealistic British linguist (played by Nigel Havers) working as a Russian-to-English translator for his country’s intelligence service comes to loathe institutionalized secrecy, with its reflexive and self-perpetuating preference for mistrust, suspicion, and skullduggery. He learned Russian because he loved Russian novels and art, but using the language for spy work has sucked the joy out of it. Talking to his father (played by Michael Caine), he glumly delivers the movie’s most memorable line: “Their secret world has put out the light of the ordinary world.”
Baker is determined to rail against a similar dying of the light—to teach us not just how to put the misery hat on, but how to set it aside as needed, before it sucks dry our ability to see all the good left in the world: the lunch breaks and bottle-feeding and sexual improvisation, the dogs and flowers and family life.