August 10, 2004

Check yourself before you wreck yourself

Jeff Jarvis, my co-panelist at Makor tonight (see ya there) buys Leon Weiseltier's spin on Checkpoint the new Nicholson Baker novel about a plot to assassinate George W. Bush.

I haven't read the book, but obviously that's not gonna stop me from blogging my opinion, which is that Jeff and Leon are suffering from one of those infamous failures of imagination.

I'm not a fan of Baker but he's a serious novelist, and why on earth would a serious novelist write the book that his critics are seeing: a simple screed against Bush, whether or not the plot involves his murder? There must be something else going on here.

Sure enough, in the L.A. Times, P.J. O'Rourke gets what Wieseltier missed: it's a joke, people.

Unfortunately the very insightful review is not available online without a paid sub, but here are some highlights.

[begin more-readable blockquote here]

At the moment, in America, there is an almost murderous rage against the president among a certain kind of people. Or so I understand. I haven't been to any documentary screenings, pop concerts or book publication parties lately. Nicholson Baker -- the mischievous and obsessive author of such deliberate, even obscene, provocations as "Vox" and "The Fermata" -- it seems, has. In his newest fiction, "Checkpoint," he takes two of that certain kind of people and puts them in a Washington hotel room. From the phrase "almost murderous rage," Baker subtracts, for dramaturgy's sake, the word "almost."
What to call them? They aren't leftists. Their critique of the capitalist system doesn't go beyond, "I mean, are you really trying to tell me that you're going to kill George W. Bush because Wal-Mart is ugly?"
"It's a contributing factor, it really is."
And much time in "Checkpoint" is spent waiting for room service.
Room service eventually comes. On the whole, Baker improves upon Samuel Beckett's work. Baker's jokes will make people, rather than theater majors, laugh.
JAY: No, this time, this war, that he imposed on the world, when the whole world said no to him so CLEARLY, in the streets, in every country, this war that he forced on humanity -- this war will be avenged!
BEN: Okay, but first, how about we get a bite to eat.
[n.b.: Wieseltier quotes Jay's setup above but not Ben's punchline, only one instance in which he robs the novel of its context]
Baker's absurdism is more poignantly absurd. Jay's murder weapons include "radio-controlled flying saws" he bought from someone he met in a bar and "homing bullets," which, if placed in a box with a photograph of the person to be shot, will "seek that person out."
Furthermore, the worldview that Baker demolishes for the audience is much broader than that held by Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. And the nonsense, rather than being labored, is produced simply by airing the thoughts that a certain kind of people have.
JAY: You know, I'm starting to see now that all the totally off-the-wall conspiracy theories, all of them are true. It's not just that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor ... you've got AIDS developed as part of those germ-warfare experiments in Africa, those monkeys that escaped.
BEN: Jumping species, well, yeah, there's some evidence
Jay bemoans a thing that bothers Smugwumps even more than the Iraq war: suburban sprawl. Ben considers whom to blame: "What was the demonic force that did this to us? What cabal was it?" But then Ben plants a logic bomb of his own, an infernal device constructed of democracy, freedom and responsibility.
BEN: Okay, but the truth is we did it to ourselves.... Most people like driving around all day. None of this was the result of George W. -- it's the result of millions of tiny individual decisions.
JAY: Yeah, but sometimes you reach a point where you realize that millions of tiny individual decisions are condensed into one man.
Jay and Ben don't hate the president, they hate us all. It's a chilly glimpse at how the self-appointed and self-important champions of all good opinions have worked havoc, from Robespierre to Pol Pot.
Baker introduces real horror into the silliness. Again improving on Beckett, Baker has his Pozzo character, Bush, bring factual suffering onto the stage instead of the symbolic chattel, Lucky. At the end of the Iraq war, a family trying to reach safety in their car was attacked at a checkpoint by American soldiers with grenades and rifles. Jay recounts reports of the mother saying, "I saw the heads of my two little girls come off." Jay cannot get this out of his mind. Neither will the reader be able to do so.
But this mainspring of Jay's vengeful obsession isn't revealed until Page 102. By then, Jay and Ben have made themselves out to be such fools that readers are left as puzzled by the dramatic intent of "Checkpoint" as they were back in college, by "Godot."
Or not. Baker doesn't seem to want us to see Jay and Ben as fools because they reject Bush, all his works and all his empty promises. Rather, they are fools because they can conceive of no better means of rejection than mystical pistol slugs and puppies. Baker will be accused of fostering terrorism by that certain other kind of people. But -- not to disappoint Ann, Bill and the rest of my ilk -- "Checkpoint's" message is more like something about champions of progressive, reformist ideas becoming involved with local and national politics, getting out the vote and so on.
[end blockquote]

Tim Noah, writing before O'Rourke's review appeared, is smart enough to suspect that Baker is trying something more clever than Jarvis and Wieseltier give him credit for, but ultimately decides against it.

Much of Checkpoint mimics leftist myopia so deftly that I felt sure it was meant as intentional parody. Yes, the Iraq war turned out badly. The absence of chemical and biological weapons and our failure thus far to create a stable, secular democracy makes it extremely difficult for Americans to justify the price in blood paid by coalition soldiers and by Iraqi civilians. But many Iraqis still believe their liberation from Saddam Hussein was worth the price. No honest debate can ignore that, as Jay and Ben both do throughout Checkpoint. The checkpoint of the title refers to a horrifying incident in which Americans accidentally massacred an Iraqi family...
No humor in that, obviously. But surely, I thought, Baker meant us to note the unacknowledged fact that the overwhelming majority of occupation-era killings in Iraq weren't tragic accidents, like the checkpoint incident, but deliberate acts of terror committed by various groups within Iraq—mostly against Americans and those Iraqis who worked with them. You can call the American presence in Iraq a tragic and costly blunder, but you can't call it butchery. I didn't think Baker was.

But I had to revise that view after reading Baker's interview with David Gates in the Aug. 9 Newsweek:

It's easy to sneer at Limbaugh for confusing a novelist with a character—would he do the same with Stephen King?—but Checkpoint did, in fact, originate in Baker's own fury, grief and helplessness over Iraq. "I was plodding along, writing my little books," he says, "and then suddenly this thing speared into my life and it just took me over." He lost a month of 2003 to his obsession with the news, swore off Google News and blogs—he now has a Post-It on his screen saying ONLY E-MAIL—and finally wrote the first draft of Checkpoint in April 2004, during the siege of Fallujah, because he could think about nothing else. As he typed, he found himself weeping.

Not much distancing irony in evidence there....What makes Checkpoint a work of pornography isn't that its characters debate killing George W. Bush. What makes it pornography is the shameless way it panders to its readers' crudest beliefs. Jay and Ben's debate about something that's plainly wrong serves to disguise their complete agreement about every facet of the Bush administration and the Iraq war. It isn't a debate at all.

The problem here is that Noah was looking for a satire on Bush-hating, the kind of book Christopher Buckley might have written, and, not finding it, decides that the entire book is meant earnestly -- especially after he learns that Baker really was torn up by the events in Iraq.

But clearly (or, as clear as can be to someone who hasn't, remember, read the book) Baker is exploring and expanding on his own genuine emotions, taking them to their (il)logical extremes for purposes of dark Beckettian comedy. That he doesn't intend to mock his characters hardly means that he agrees with them.

Noah doesn't see a "debate" because he's looking for a political one -- was the war justified? -- rather than a moral one -- how should good people respond to evil committed in their name?

WaPo's Jennifer Howard also seems to get it, noting that even people who viscerally dislike Bush are not, as Jeff, Leon and other less stable individuals fear, literally blinded by their own emotions, and that they deserve smart entertainments too:

"If you are a left-leaning reader who doesn't much care for the current administration and its policies, you may well find Checkpoint more of a cathartic amusement than a source of outrage."

Posted by Daniel Radosh


My comments here:

Post a comment

Powered by
Movable Type 3.2