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August 07, 2004

Jesus, People, Get a Grip

by Ron Hogan

Last weekend, I took an hour or so out of my busy schedule to read the advance copy of Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint Knopf had passed along, and my immediate reaction was, I suspect, similar to the one many of its readers have had or will have: over this the right wing is excited? As everybody who's really read the book points out, far from advocating the assassination of George W. Bush, Baker makes it blatantly obvious early on that the guy who wants to shoot the president is a nutjob (even if, in one of the dialogue's best lighter moments, he does have the inside scoop on getting a properly cooked steak). So the advocacy issue is simply off the table, unless you're just looking to ride a wave of indignation. But other than that, is Checkpoint any good?

Well, I thought it was a little good, but not much, frankly. Timothy Noah pointed out in Slate that the "debate" in which Baker's two characters engage isn't really much of a debate, though Rake's Progress quite properly calls Noah to task for accusing Baker of engaging in "pornography." Granted, Noah's on to something when he brings up "the shameless way Checkpoint panders to its readers' crudest beliefs." As somebody who has reviewed a lot of political nonfiction over the last decade, I feel quite comfortable saying that the problem with a lot of the recent anti-Bush material is a "preaching to the choir" quality whereby, because it is assumed the reader shares the author's low opinion of W. and Dick and company, all sorts of insults get tossed around. The problem with that approach is that it undermines the potential to persuade unconvinced readers with well-thought arguments and counterproposals.

As a work of fiction, of course, Checkpoint doesn't have to live up to any sort of standards for nonfiction writing--but in a philosophical dialogue, which is what I'd consider this text, one might reasonably expect the tension to emerge out of a genuine clash of ideas out of which some synthesis emerges. Instead, we're presented with two guys who can really only be distinguished from each other by the fact that one wants to kill the president with remote-control buzzsaws and the other just hopes the Democrats will win in November. Since we know the president isn't going to die, the only tension is weakly dramatic: will the crazy guy hurt the nice guy before the nice guy can calm the crazy guy down? And when will room service turn up with lunch? That's weak, sure, and to some extent you might even call it lazy, but Noah's way off-base calling it "pornography." (His comparison to Fahrenheit 9/11 is also way off, but RP deals with that issue handily...)

Meanwhile, I can understand why Leon Wieseltier thinks Checkpoint is a "scummy little book," especially since it's clear that he really doesn't much care for Nicholson Baker--or, for that matter, political blogs, which he sees as part of a general degradation of the tone of discourse. I can even sympathize with his stance that the last thing American liberalism needs is to sink into the kind of demagoguery that he claims Baker's crazy guy represents. But, and this is crucial, I don't think that's really what Baker's crazy guy does, except to the extent that Baker's more conservative attackers try to claim he does. After all, the crazy guy isn't held up as the "good liberal," and while he is anti-Bush and protested the invasion of Iraq, he's just as vehemently anti-abortion...which, interestingly enough, seems to make the nice guy squirm just as much as the idea of shooting the president. Actually, my main problem with the Wieseltier "review" is that I'd really have liked to hear more about the book, rather than an extended op-ed about what's wrong with liberal demagoguery, but, hey, this is the price I pay for insisting the NYTBR should be a place to discuss how today's hot-button issues play out in today's books, right?

As attacks on the Bush administration go, Checkpoint is hampered by its fictional elements, and as far as the fiction goes, well, it doesn't go very far at all. Obviously, Baker wanted to get this out there ASAP, while it still had some degree of relevance. But it's not worth the $15.95 cover price, and by the time it comes out in paperback, one way or another it's not going to be relevant. I'm sure Knopf isn't going to lose much, if anything, by tossing this out to the bookstores, but frankly I would've told Baker to get a web site, slap a PDF file of his manuscript on it, and distribute the whole thing for free under a Creative Commons license. He'd get what he wants--the widespread dissemination of his musings--without gouging readers on one of his weaker efforts.

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