How does one judge, strictly on its literary merits, a novel about the planned assassination of the current American president, published at the height of the most contentious election season in recent memory? The answer to that question, based on the tone and quantity of the publicity that greeted Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, is: with great difficulty, if at all.
An overview of the story itself is disarmingly simple: Two middle-aged men named Jay and Ben, old friends, spend an afternoon in a Washington, D.C., hotel room discussing Jay's supposed scheme to murder George W. Bush. To call the book “slight” is not pejorative, just descriptive. Small in format and only 115 pages long, with a cartoon bull's-eye as its cover design, Baker's creation seems, at first glance, an almost comical mismatch for the sinister motives attributed to it by conservative pundits.
On closer inspection, when viewed strictly as narrative, Baker's tenth book is simultaneously something old and something new. On one hand, it is a microcosmic grab bag of his earlier themes, obsessions, quirks, and stylistic experiments, including echoes of the author's almost spiritual reverence for the usually overlooked minutiae and physical detritus of everyday life. This perspective drove his eclectic debut novel,Mezzanine (1988)—which is composed entirely of an office worker pondering the familiar objects around him during his lunch hour spent in the building's mezzanine.
Like Baker's best-known book, Vox (1992), the action of Checkpointconsists (unless you count the minuscule walk-on role of a room service waiter) of a single continuous conversation between two people. The difference is that in Vox the subject is not presidential assassination but telephone sex. (In an ironic aside, Vox was Baker's first brush, however indirectly, with controversy and presidential politics when the erotic novel gained fame as an apparent gift from White House intern Monica Lewinsky to then-president Bill Clinton in 1997 during their sexual affair.)
Likewise, the topic of passionate personal activism, albeit a far less violent form than Jay's obsessions in Checkpoint, surfaced in the author's book-length nonfiction work Double Fold (2001), which lambasted American libraries’ modern policy of destroying millions of original historic books, newspapers, and magazines in favor of microfilm or electronic copies in order to save on storage costs.
The “something new” in Checkpoint is that Baker takes his narrative technique in an even more minimalist direction than the verbatim phone-sex exchange of Vox. Technically, the narrative arc (such as it is) ofCheckpoint is not a writer's account of a conversation but is rather one step removed: a mere mechanical transcript of a conversation, made possible by the convenient fact that Jay asks Ben to bring along a digital dictaphone—found at Circuit City and featuring a 390-minute capacity, as Ben reveals on page 1 (the book's first words, appropriately enough, are “Testing, testing”—to preserve their discussion, for reasons that are never made exactly clear.
As a result, experiencing Checkpoint feels more like watching a one-act play—down to its single, fixed stage set—than reading a traditional novel. The action is entirely in the men's loose and wide-ranging talk. For the reader, there is the voyeuristic appeal of listening to two individuals—longtime friends—catch up on each other's lives after an absence of several years, which include a presumed mental breakdown by Jay.
Readers are also given the chance, vicariously through Ben, to play armchair psychiatrist and to judge how much of Jay's ramblings are provocative bluster, how much are sincere, and to reflect on the sometimes-fine line between zealotry and psychosis, as in this exchange:
BEN: You’re telling me to calm down when you’ve got this—deed on your mind. It's a major, major, major crime. It doesn’t get much more major.
JAY: I know, and it's high time, too. I haven’t felt this way about any of the other ones. Not Nixon, not Bonzo, even. For the good of humankind.
BEN: Do you have a gun?
JAY: I don’t like guns.
BEN: But do you have one?
JAY: I may.
BEN: That is so low. You’re a civilized person.
JAY: Not anymore.
BEN: You can’t—the country has no need for this service.
JAY: I think it does. I think we have to lance the f——— boil.
BEN: No, I’m serious, he’ll be out of power eventually. Either he loses and he's out, or he wins, and then he's out a little later. Either way, his time will pass in a twinkling. Many years from now you’ll be reading the comics in some café somewhere, and you’ll think, Boy oh boy, I’m sure glad I didn’t do that.
Sane or not, Jay is not buying Ben's argument that four more years of a Bush presidency “will pass in a twinkling” or that other government officials would carry through with the same policies even if Bush were gone. The last straw for Jay, apparently, was an incident in Iraq from which Baker's novel takes its name:...
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