Volume V, Issue 4 -- November, 2004
Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint
The Reactions and Reviews
The Reviews: in the US
The Reviews: in the UK
The Reviews: in Germany
The Author Speaks
IntroductionAn election year in the United States, 2004 was likely to see a glut of political books in any case, but the sheer volume proved astonishing. Predictably, there were many books about the polarizing incumbent, George jr. Bush, and even some bestsellers about his Democratic party opponent (notably the controversial Unfit for Command1). In addition, dozens of high profile non-fiction titles about all aspects of the American 'war on terror' appeared -- as did former president Bill Clinton's memoirs, My Life. So politicised was the literary landscape that one of the titles shortlisted for the American National Book Award was the bestselling government report, The 9/11 Commission Report.
Fiction generally remained an escape and alternative, but several of the most widely discussed titles of the year were explicitly political. Philip Roth's safely distant The Plot Against America, an alternate history positing a Charles Lindbergh presidency in the 1940s, was particularly well received (and rocketed up the bestseller lists), but it was Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, in which one the characters is obsessed with the idea of assassinating sitting president George jr. Bush, that provoked the strongest reactions and greatest outrage.
Almost as soon as its publication was announced, Checkpoint became a cause célèbre, widely denounced as irresponsible and sensationalistic. The heated pre-publication discussion concerning the book was striking because neither the book's opponents nor its defenders had read it. That didn't seem to stop very many from denouncing what they believed was the unacceptable suggestion of even just the possibility of presidential assassination (specifically in the climate of that time) -- or, in some cases, insisting that free speech should allow even for that.
The great media interest led publication of the book -- already rushed, and (adding to the controversy) originally scheduled for just before the Republican National Convention -- to be moved up from 24 to 10 August, with an initial print run reported to have been 60,000 (or 75,0002). Media interest continued -- the book was widely reviewed -- but did not translate into sales-success. By the end of August, only some 6,500 copies had been sold, a very poor performance for a book receiving so much attention3.
The reactions to Checkpoint, both before and after publication, provide a fascinating lesson in literary reception in politically charged times. On the face of it, it is a book that tries to give voice to the frustrations of a significant portion of the American population with President Bush's ill-advised and -conceived foreign adventurism and its consequences -- though it does so in what might be considered outrageous fashion. With a large segment of the American population unwavering (and uncritical) in their support of the jr. Bush administration's actions, the book -- or rather: the very idea of the book -- inevitably provoked strong reactions. By (arguably) suggesting assassination as a "solution", Baker upped the ante -- apparently beyond what the vast majority, even of those in agreement with his fundamental opposition to the jr. Bush-administration policies, found palatable
Checkpoint had little chance to be considered on its own merits: opinion -- especially against it -- hardened before the text itself was available. The much-publicized central conceit (a character plans to assassinate the president), and, to a much lesser extent, the timing of the publication (before the Republican National Convention and the fall presidential election) were enough to turn public opinion if not against at least away from the book. Several of the first reviews appeared before the book was put on sale as well, most notably the one in The New York Times Book Review that began by calling Checkpoint a "scummy little book"4. Review coverage was extensive but uneven, and both opinions and characterizations of the book were very mixed; little of this later coverage proved enough to interest readers in the book itself, or weaken the pre-conceived notions about it.
Even on the Internet, in weblogs and at news and opinion-sites, discussion was much more widespread and heated before anyone actually had the requisite knowledge to truly judge what Baker had done (i.e. read the book). The book itself, it turned out, proved not to be of that much interest. Clearly, a majority in America, in both the critical and popular spheres, feel that fiction -- even political fiction -- is worthy of a role in public debate only insofar as it can be read as non-fiction. As long as Checkpoint could be considered "real" -- an actual plan or appeal to kill the sitting president, or even a mere discussion of such an assassination -- it was worth concerning oneself with. Once published, and demonstrably mere fiction, it ceased to be worth most readers' time.5
Checkpoint also received extensive coverage in Germany, where the book was published in translation on the same day as in the US6, as well as the UK, where the book only appeared about a month later, but where much of the early American reaction was widely reported on. Even here, the reviews followed the American example, trying to find context in the American reactions rather than the book itself.
Among the few bright spots in the coverage of the title (and the controversy) was that offered on the Internet, and especially on the literary weblog sites. Several sites7 kept up with the ongoing debate, and numerous literary weblogs then also offered their own evaluations of the book, providing some of the more thoughtful reviews of the book. While this coverage of the book and controversy was generally more extensive and sensible than found elsewhere, the apparently limited reach of literary weblogs meant it was not particularly influential in framing the larger debate or influencing the public to at least consider the book on its own merits.
Nicholson Baker chose to offer a book of great immediacy, but it looks like in these impatient times he wasn't fast enough: the noise surrounding what was trumpeted as the idea behind his novel drowned out the much softer and more complex murmur of the book itself. The surprisingly varied readings of Checkpoint in the reviews suggest that even these were often written, at least in part, in reaction to pre-publication coverage, rather than solely or mainly focussing on the text. Even the best-intentioned could not ignore what had been made of Checkpoint, leaving the text, again, marginalized.
What's left, for now is confusion and obsolescence -- the book became passé the moment it hit the bookshelves, the text not living up to the hype. Whether it deserves a second (or rather: a first real) chance, or can ever be disentangled from a reading that looks first and foremost at the political and cultural climate that resulted in these six weeks of hysteria in the summer of 2004 remains to be seen. If nothing else, however, Checkpoint serves as a sad indicator of the limited tolerance for and interest in literary imagination and creation in early 21st century America. Fiction -- as art, thought-experiment, challenge -- is simply not wanted.
Notes1 By John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi, published by Regnery.
2 Press reports generally mentioned the 60,000 figure; the official Knopf press release claimed: "first printing 75,000 copies".
3 See, for example, Hillel Italie's report in the Associated Press. Aside from a one-time appearance on the San Francisco Chronicle's bestseller list (at number 10), Checkpoint appears to have barely enjoyed even merely local success; Stephen Amidon's claim (in his review in the Sunday Times (29 August)) that Checkpoint had "achieved bestseller status" in the US may be literally (just barely) true but clearly overstates it's actual success.
4 Leon Wieseltier, 8 August 2004.
5 By way of contrast, consider again the continuing success of the anti-John Kerry screed, Unfit for Command, with sales in the hundreds of thousands. As of 31 October it has appeared on the bestseller list in The New York Times Book Review for ten straight weeks, and although always accompanied by the dreaded dagger, indicating that "some bookstores report receiving bulk orders" (i.e. the likelihood of what some consider sales-figure manipulation) it is undeniably a smashing success -- especially when compared to the essentially trivial sales of Checkpoint.
6 It was published by Rowohlt in Germany -- like Random House imprint Alfred A. Knopf, a Bertelsmann subsidiary.
7 Including the complete review's own Literary Saloon, but most notably Rake's Progress (see, for example, entries here and earlier).
- Return to top of the page -
PrejudgmentCheckpoint came with little warning: a late addition to the Knopf list, there was no public notice that Nicholson Baker had written this book until some two months before the originally planned publication date (24 August, later moved up to 10 August), extremely short lead time for any book. Linton Weeks' 29 June article in The Washington Post, A Novel's Plot Against the President, was the first article to warn and prepare the general public for what was coming. Weeks noted: "Some of the ways Jay envisions killing the president are ludicrous" but also that: "Much of the book is serious polemic, based on Baker's reporting.". And he warned:It's a work of the imagination and no attempts on the president's life are actually made, but the novel is likely to be incendiary, as with Michael Moore's documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11.It was probably as even-handed a preview as the book could get. With statements from a Knopf spokesman, the publishers were clearly hoping to lay the groundwork for a nice little controversy -- perhaps dreaming of Fahrenheit 9/11-like success -- but apparently hadn't guessed exactly how incendiary the book would be (and how little that would help book sales).
That there would be immediate and harsh criticism of the book was clear to many from the start. Kurt Nimmo, in a 30 June Counterpunch piece on Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint, saw it all coming:I can hear it now. Nicholson Baker wants to kill the president. He's a threat to national security. He should be locked up.Over- and premature reactions were the order of the day, the public (or rather their pundit-representatives) quickly split into only two extreme camps: those who thought the book (meaning, to them, the idea -- presidential assassination -- presented in the book) was unacceptable, versus those who thought that, since it was a work of fiction, anything goes. Meanwhile, almost no one on either side -- at least not the most vociferous opponents and defenders -- appears to have actually read the book. In hindsight, Nimmo's take looks prescient, but like those he expected would criticize the book, Nimmo (at the time) also does not appear to have been familiar with the contents beyond what he had read in press reports, defending it as "mainly surrealistic fiction" (as if that makes it less threatening than a realistic fiction).
In short, Nicholson Baker's novel is a dinner bell for irascible right-wing nut cases. (...) It matters not that Barker's book is fiction -- and mainly surrealistic fiction at that -- because the fact of the matter is he hates Bush and has the impertinence to say so. Literature is no excuse. Novelists are suspect. Hollywood filmmakers and movie stars are suspect. In fact, culture itself is suspect. Or culture disapproved by right-wingers, that is.
This fundamental difference in approaching the book haunts the reception of Checkpoint. The position against it didn't need to rely on a qualitative consideration, as it didn't matter whether the book was any good or not. It's the content, the presence of a character who contemplates assassinating the sitting president, that was cause for outrage -- enough, by itself, to pass judgement on it and dismiss it as unaccceptable. (It is also a charge and criticism that is unanswerable, meaning that essentially nothing in or about the book could have redeemed it -- save possibly the realisation that the book does not, in fact, in any way seriously consider the assassination of the president1.)
Defenders of the book, meanwhile, chose to take the hard line that it was 'just' fiction (rather than suggesting the more sensible wait-and-see attitude, and then using the text itself to counter the opposition), which did not serve them (or the book) well. Fiction can and should be taken seriously -- as Baker's book certainly was meant to be, at least on some level -- so to deny it value by suggesting that as long as something is dressed up as fiction anything goes (and nothing matters) is to undermine the power of art itself and suggest it is not even worth arguing about. This take -- rather than focussing on why a literary work might validly present the outrageous -- was also counterproductive, given a broad suspicion of the arts prominent among many so-called right-wing elements in the US but also finding support in much of the mainstream (as suggested by opposition to NEA funding and other support of 'controversial' (generally sexually explicit) art, as well as widespread book banning in schools and libraries). Admittedly, most of the most fervent opponents would not have been swayed, as they clearly believe that there is no justification for a literary or other artistic treatment of certain subjects, including much to do with sex, and, at least in the case of presidential assassination, violence. Nevertheless, it likely would have found somewhat more public resonance than the 'it's fiction so anything goes' attitude that the argument was usually boiled down to.
In the early days this controversy seemed to be going just the way publisher Knopf wanted. The 'right-wing' vehemently denounced the book, and so Checkpoint was getting a lot of free publicity. Presumably, the belief was that protests against the book were mainly reaching a part of the population that wasn't the target (or likely) audience for the book anyway, and that the denunciations would only serve to make those who were receptive to the book even more eager to buy it -- a model that appeared to have worked well for Michael Moore's film, Fahrenheit 9/11, making it the highest grossing documentary ever earlier that year. Perhaps lulled into a false sense of smashing success by the extensive press coverage, and the fact that they "had received no official complaints so far about the book", Knopf moved up the publication date to 10 August2 -- and apparently considered upping the first printing to 100,000 (as reported by the AP). (The official Knopf press release then claimed only: "first printing 75,000 copies", while later press reports put the figure at only 60,000: after that initial giddy optimism, they saw the writing on the wall -- and still overestimated demand by eight or nine to one.)
Denunciations of Checkpoint continued to appear, with numerous commentators explicitly politicising the debate, now presenting it in terms of the Republican-Democratic party divide and the upcoming elections. Checkpoint was practically presented as a leftist policy paper (despite, again, none of the critics having actually read it yet), yet more proof of how low the Democrats would stoop. Typical was James K. Glassman's piece on the Latest Artsy Outrage (The Washington Times, 21 July), which managed to put the onus on the Democratic nominee for president:John Kerry may not be responsible for the rantings of the likes of Moore, Goldberg and Baker. But he could strike a blow for decency in America -- and, coincidentally, help his own cause -- if he would forcefully denounce the murderous hysteria in Hollywood and Manhattan. A candidate who lacks the moral integrity to take a stand against these mounting outrages doesn't deserve to be president.Never mind that President Bush himself took no stand (of any sort) regarding the book -- no, apparently Baker's book automatically makes him a part of the 'Left', and that in turn John Kerry's responsibility. Anti-Bush meant pro-Kerry, and the only possible positions in this either/or world were that or the opposite. Political -- and moral -- complexity (such as, perhaps, a novel might explore ...) were out of the question.
Glassman obstinately refuses to understand what Baker may have been trying to do, giving the author no benefit of any doubt:"I wanted to capture the specificity of that rage," said Baker. "How do you react to something that you think is hideously wrong ? How do you keep it from driving you nuts ?" Well, one way might be to campaign aggressively on behalf of candidates who want to end the war, like Ralph Nader. Another might be to write cogent, rational essays. Baker has chosen a different route: write a book about killing George W. Bush.The approaches Glassman suggests don't allow for artistic creation as political action: campaigning and writing op-ed pieces he can accept, but to involve art is apparently a perversion of the process. (One wonders whether he would decry as similarly beyond the pale novels of adulation for the jr. Bush, praising him for his successes in, for example, Iraq, without taking into consideration the needless destruction and incredible number of casualties (on both sides) caused by by the jr. Bush administration's inept occupation of the country.) Baker's "different route" is then also unfairly characterized: "a book" doesn't acknowledge the distinction between fiction and non-fiction (two very different types of books), and to claim it is "about killing George W. Bush" is a bold statement for anyone who hasn't read the book to make (and, at the very least, a gross exaggeration and over-simplification for anyone who has).
Mark W. Davis' piece at the National Review (15 July), Shoot to Sell, also sees the book as a manifestation of 'the Left' gone bad: "Today's Left has lost its way", he finds, and Checkpoint is Exhibit A (or B or C -- Fahrenheit 9/11 remained the favourite piece of evidence). His description of the book is more accurate than Glassman's, but no less sinister-sounding: he writes that it "explores explicit fantasies about killing President George W. Bush". And Davis actually worries about the book's possible success and influence -- art being good (or rather: very, very bad) for something after all:The problem is, intentions emerge out of emotions. A powerful enough emotion, validated and popularized by a prominent book by a seemingly respectable publisher, can be taken as an incitement. Checkpoint, whatever its literary conceits, will be an act of linguistic terrorism.Like so many, he was very sure of himself: whatever it is, he thought (not yet knowing exactly what it was, since he hadn't read the text), it will "be an act of linguistic terrorism". But specificity gets dangerous when the specifics aren't known: the general complaint that what Baker did is unacceptable because he wrote about assassinating the president is, on some level, a valid one, but Davis' interpretations jumped the gun. Checkpoint is full of wild emotions (would-be assassin Jay's, mainly) but it's almost impossible to read them as anything out of which intention of the sort Davis means could emerge. Whatever Checkpoint is, it is not an incitement -- as the text makes abundantly clear.
Closer to publication, more temperate news stories appeared, but the original tarring stuck quite nicely. More than a month after the book appeared (by which time it had also clearly flopped) it was still being waved as a red flag, enough people still eager for it to "be taken as an incitement" -- albeit of a very different sort. For example, Victor Davis Hanson mentions it in his National Review piece, Brace Yourself:This is stupid -- and dangerous. Al Qaeda has announced its intentions play on perceptions of Western decadence and nihilism. Should the terrorists strike at our leaders, there will be a national accounting over the failure of those on the left to condemn such extremism. Alfred A. Knopf, for example, is promoting Bakerís book as a cris du coeur -- "in response to the powerless seething fury many Americans felt when President Bush decided to take the nation to war."This distortion of Baker's book goes further than most -- and does so after the text was actually available, suggesting that, at least on the extreme 'right' in the US, the actual text was completely irrelevant and of no interest. the book symbolized something, and that was enough. Surprisingly -- and disappointingly -- , this reaction does not seem to have been limited to the 'right': much of the public seems to have been turned off by the book without giving it much of a chance either.
There wasn't a consensus, but it did become a widely held belief that by writing Checkpoint Nicholson Baker went too far. Unfortunately, that opinion was reached before Baker had gone pretty much anywhere. Yes, he'd written a novel that featured a character who apparently toyed with the idea of assassinating the sitting American president, George jr. Bush, but beyond that little about the book was known3. Rather than wait and judge the text itself, commentators -- especially supporters of President Bush -- mauled the book -- and tried, among other things, to blame the Democratic party (and/or the 'left').
There's no way of knowing whether reactions would have been as strong if the book had been published at a different time -- after the November 2004 election, for example. The timing certainly did not help: it was easy to suggest (and believe) the book was a particularly underhanded take-down attempt of a president facing re-election. It is also hard not to read Checkpoint as an anti-Bush rant -- though Baker expresses a more general dissatisfaction with generations of American leadership, and the frustration his characters feel is that of the powerless citizen whose leaders betray him in, especially, foreign adventurism: Checkpoint clearly denounces the Bush administration's actions in Iraq, as well as the arrogance and general corruption of the administration, but is certainly no endorsement of the Democratic party and its policies4
Notes1 Most critics did read the book as one in which Jay seriously considers assassinating the president, but this is not the only possible reading, and we would argue that Jay's words can plausibly be interpreted differently, including (but not limited to) as a desperate cry for help by a mentally unstable man. See our review, as well as discussions below.
2 A Christian Science Monitor article of 30 July states: "Checkpoint had been scheduled to appear Aug. 25, just days before the Republican National Convention in New York, but this week Alfred A. Knopf pushed the book's 60,000 first printing up to Aug. 10.", but the AP article from four weeks earlier already puts the publication date at 10 August. Given printing and distribution logistics, it seems clear that Knopf was at least leaning towards the 10 August date from the beginning of July onwards; possibly, however, the final decision was left until the end of July.
3 What was known -- and mentioned in many of the articles -- was that Jay's weapons of choice included several that clearly could not be used to take the life of the president. beyond leading some of the commentators to call the book "surreal" and the like, not a great deal of attention was paid to this.
4 The one other major policy issue that comes up in the book is abortion, and would-be assassin Jay is passionately opposed to it: "This is murder. It is. You don't have to be a Christian extremist to see it." (p.83) Few of the 'right-wing' commentators have noted Baker's character is on the 'right' side of this issue, presumably because it would undermine their interpretation of Checkpoint as entirely irresponsible.
- Return to top of the page -
Literary AssassinationIn Checkpoint, a character considers assassinating the sitting president, George jr. Bush. For many people, that alone -- regardless of how Baker meant or presented it -- was enough to make the book unacceptable.
Despite the fact that presidential assassination is a near-taboo subject, with threats of any sort against the sitting president taken very seriously, America's permissive free speech culture and laws suggest that it would take quite a lot for any work of fiction to be actionable. Not surprisingly, at least one article wondered about Baker's book: It's only fiction, but is it legal ? (Christian Science Monitor, 30 July), but in fact there was little debate about this, as it was clear that the book posed no threat to the president (hence the appeal to decency and the like -- rather than the courts -- by critics who wished to suppress the book).
Baker's book was hardly a good test-case in this regard: once it was published almost no one continued to maintain that Checkpoint was much of an incitement to killing the president. It is fairly clear that, by the end, the characters have no intention of making an attempt on his life; arguably, there was never really any such intention.
Other countries apply stricter standards: in many nations a work critical of a national leader, much less one which includes discussion of his or her assassination is unthinkable, while even veiled or allegorical works have and do run into trouble. And even contemporary democracies have acted against books depicting violence against national leaders: 2004 saw two preliminary injunctions which have thus far prevented publication of Reinhard Liebermann's Das Ende des Kanzlers in Germany, the first of which was not against the book but the provocative target-cover (with a face that is not German chancellor Gerhard Schröder's but was judged to possibly resemble it). After the first injunction was overturned, a second, more comprehensive one was issued against the text itself: while Schröder's name is not mentioned in the book, the courts ruled that it did discuss the planning and execution of a plan to kill him, and that the book could not be published until those were removed.1
Germany allows considerably less freedom of speech than the US, especially regarding political violence, but the treatment of Liebermann's book suggests a hardening of positions after a time of some liberalization in this area: Tobias O. Meißner 2000 novel, Todestag, is an explicit novel centred entirely around the assassination of the Germsan chancellor which was not banned2. A changed political climate after the events of September 2001 (and the American reactions to it) appears to have had a far-reaching stifling effect -- a good excuse to clamp down on free expression.
Fictions proposing assassinations of living foreign leaders, especially disliked ones -- deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was a popular recent subject --, are, surprisingly, not widely condemned or considered controversial. Certainly, there is less immediacy: for many Americans it seems that foreign leaders and countries are essentially imaginary in any case. Such novels (generally thrillers) also tend to offer a clear good guy-bad guy scenario, with the foreign victims generally deserving of their fates; Checkpoint is, no doubt, in part unsettling because the discontent is homegrown, the enemy either the nation's leader (as representative for the state) or a citizen (representative for the general public). (Checkpoint is, of course, also unsettling because presidential assassination has, until recently, been fairly popular in America.)
Works that discuss acts of violence against other (famous) living people have caused outrage and/or legal action. J.G.Ballard's stories Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy (1967) and Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (1967), both later published in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), obviously attracted attention. The Reagan-piece was prosecuted as obscene in England, while in America publisher Nelson Doubleday took things in his own hands and pulped The Atrocity Exhibition (though the collection has now long been available in both the UK and US). Despite perhaps not quite living up to their sensationalistic titles the stories caused a brief flurry of outrage, but that seems to have died down fairly quickly -- much like the Checkpoint controversy.3
Depicting or even just suggesting the killing of a character in fiction does take on a different meaning when the character is a real person. It allows the author to touch a different chord than s/he can if just using an invented character. In a country where recent presidents (notably Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, and the jr. Bush) have been particularly polarizing, love 'em or hate 'em figures the president is one that is an easy but particularly dangerous one to use. Writing an essentially contemporaneous novel (Checkpoint takes place in May, 2004) and mentioning the possibility of assassination could be expected to touch more than just some nerves; as it turns out, it may not have been the best fictional course for Baker to take.
Notes1 See, for example, this article in the Hamburger Abendblatt (22 June). Note also that 'Reinhard Liebermann' is a pseudonym.
2 Any academic studies of Baker's Checkpoint will have to consider it in light of Todestag, a novel that it bears a striking resemblance to. Described as a "Verhörroman" (an interrogation-novel), Todestag is also presented almost entirely in the form of dialogue, giving the assassin opportunity to explain and try to justify his actions. Meißner's novel makes Baker's look artful and subtle -- the assassin goes by the name of 'Kain Zwaifel' (a homonym for 'no doubt'), or the initials 'K.Z.' -- and there is no topic that is quite as charged as the war in Iraq behind the character's actions, but it certainly rises to the same level of outrage as Baker's book does.
3 The title, Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, does, however seem to be a source of continuing outrage in some circles.
- Return to top of the page -
CheckpointCheckpoint was published by Bertelsmann subsidiary Random House's imprint Alfred A Knopf on 10 August 2004. Foreign editions appeared in German (Rowohlt, also 10 August), the UK (Chatto and Windus, 9 September), in Spanish (Alfaguara, 13 October), and in Denmark (Tiderne Skifter, 27 October), in each case also under the title Checkpoint.1
It is a short book -- 113 pages, perhaps around 20,000 words -- and presented almost as an entirely unembellished dialogue, essentially a transcribed conversation. Aside from mention of the setting ("May 2004 / Adele Hotel and Suites / Washington, D.C."), a brief appearance by ROOM SERVICE and a few sound effects all that is presented is the give and take between Jay and Ben.
They record their conversation, the book beginning with Jay trying to see if the machine is working, as he repeats: "Testing, testing. Testing. Testing." The words sum up what Jay -- and author Baker -- are doing. (Neither, as it turns out, is doing quite as much as they originally seem to threaten to.)
Jay explains to his old school-friend that he is "going to assassinate the president". Among his weapons of choice are "some radio-controlled flying saws" and "a huge boulder I'm working on that has a giant ball bearing in the center". In other words, he is, at best, half-serious about trying to kill the president. He certainly is, however, upset by what the president and his administration have done, especially in Iraq, and much of the book is a back and forth between Jay and Ben, as they discuss the sins of the administration and what can be done about them.
Their personal backgrounds are also filled in over the course of the book: Ben is an historian, an academic whose favourite new toy is a fancy camera, living a typical comfortable upper middle class life. Jay, meanwhile, is literally an outcast: he's lost his wife and kids, moves from job to job (mainly working as a day-labourer now), and has even had to sell his car.
Jay rants, Ben is the voice of reason -- more or less. Ben is no great fan of what the jr. Bush administration has done either, but thinks radical action of the sort Jay keeps proposing unacceptable. Jay, meanwhile, continuously reminds Ben of the radical and unacceptable actions and the deceit of this administration (and many before).
It turns out that Jay does have a weapon that could be used in an assassination attempt, a gun, but it only comes to light when he's already been talked out of using it. From the sound of it he never had much of a killer instinct anyway: when Ben suggests he vent his frustration on a picture of the president, Jay say: "I'm a little hesitant. (...) I'm scared to do it."
Interpretations of the text -- once the reviews started appearing -- were all over the place, with no consensus emerging about what exactly Baker was (or might have been) trying to do. Baker's statements in interviews further muddied the waters: for a text that so many were ready to denounce because they felt they knew exactly what it was about, Checkpoint has proven to be amazingly amorphous.
Checkpoint had very poor sales, with only some 6,500 copies sold in the US by the end of August; it certainly counts as one of the biggest literary flops of the year.
Notes1 Press coverage was also concentrated in the US (and Canada), the UK, and Germany. Presumably the book will appear in translation in other countries as well -- Baker is fairly well-known and popular, and opposition to the jr. Bush widespread -- but there does not seem to be a great rush to get the book out.
- Return to top of the page -
The Reviews: in the USCheckpoint did receive a lot of review coverage.1 Given Nicholson Baker's popularity (his books have generally been very widely reviewed) and the controversial subject matter and pre-publication publicity this was not surprising. Nevertheless, a significant number of publications chose not to cover it, including several that had discussed (and condemned) it before it was published. Several also gave it less space than one might have expected, dismissing it with relatively few words: see, for example, a Boston Globe short take (29 August, Amanda Heller) and The Washington Post Book World review (8 August, Jennifer Howard).
Several media outlets published their reviews before the book actually went on sale (albeit only a few days prematurely); while not uncommon for high-profile books, the number was larger than usual, and included the Sunday book review sections of three major papers (The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times).2 The early reactions were not particularly favourable or forgiving: on-line magazine Slate had the first full review, Timothy Noah's (5 August), and called it a piece of pornography (apparently: "What makes it pornography is the shameless way it panders to its readers' crudest beliefs"). Jennifer Howard though it was a "blend of leftie outrage and oddball existential humor" (The Washington Post, 8 August), while Jennifer Reese gave it an 'F' at Entertainment Weekly, calling it a "gaga wisp of a book" that is "artless, clumsy, and stupefyingly bad".
One review, however, attracted most of the attention: Leon Wieseltier's in The New York Times Book Review (8 August). This review by the literary editor of The New Republc (where the book was not reviewed) was widely commented on3 and even referred to in later reviews4; despite its inadequacy, it appears to likely remain the one review that is remembered in connexion with Baker's book. Wieseltier leaves no doubt about where he stands, from the infamous opening line on:This scummy little book treats the question of whether the problems that now beset our cherished and anxious country may be solved by the shooting of its president.A literal (and unimaginative) reading of the text might allow for that conclusion, but one would hope that any high school English teacher would put a big, red 'X' next to such a statement if any student submitted it. Wieseltier does back off that statement, too, -- though for someone who says of Checkpoint that this: "novel whose subject is wild talk is itself wild talk" he's apparently quite willing to indulge in it if it suits his purposes5 -- but the damage is probably done.
Wieseltier does manage to convey information such as the fact that writer Janet Malcolm lives in South Egremont, Massachusetts, but it seems unlikely that this is what potential buyers and readers of Baker's book were looking for in a review. Tucked in the review are observations and analysis, and though Wieseltier offers a rather wild-eyed spin of the book (it seems unlikely that many readers would agree that at the book's end: "It may be that the president is really in danger") it is -- when he's focussed on the book itself -- an arguably plausible reading. But Wieseltier doesn't focus on the book, using it instead as a springboard to fulminate on what he sees as the book's politics and, more generally, on the current American political situation. One huge chunk of the review -- over 850 words in a piece about 2200 words in length -- contains only one parenthetical mention of anything to do with the book, and throughout Wieseltier co-mingles fiction- and reality-commentary. Baker's book, by discussing real events and people, perhaps invites this approach but Wieseltier seems unable (or, more likely: unwilling) to allow for the possibility that a fictional treatment of the subject-matter may have other goals than merely to present anti-Bush sentiments in fictional trappings.
Many reviewers saw the book much as Wieseltier did, their approach to it as simplistic, not seeing (or looking for) artistic invention (and the possible implications thereof) but taking the realism they saw in it literally (at least to the extent it served their views6). For them, the text was simply another work from the anti-Bush 'left', echoing its sentiments and rhetoric. Anti-Bush readers were, more or less, expected to nod approvingly, pro-Bush readers to be put off by it. Typical reactions included:
The weakness of interpreting Jay's spoutings as (Baker's) arguments should be self-evident: he is a marginal member of society -- i.e. representative of only a small, dispossessed class -- , and apparently mentally unbalanced. He is not a man to be taken seriously (and even his threats of action -- assassinating the president -- are, largely, completely fantastical, i.e. again: not to be taken seriously). Reviewers can't help but notice, but draw conclusions from this (if they bother) to fit their own takes on the novel: in his review in Salon (16 August) Charles Taylor, for example, accuses Baker of hedging "his bet by making Jay unbalanced to begin with", calling it "a safety exit" strategy. The idea that Baker knew very well what he was doing -- and how it must appear -- and that that is integral to his book is given essentially no consideration. Some come up against the obvious wall -- "But Jay is also Bakerís spokesman of righteousness, and of Checkpointís many failings perhaps the most subtle is that Jay canít serve as both a delusional paranoiac and as a voice of moral authority" (Blake de Pastino, Baltimore City Paper) -- but don't draw any conclusions from it.
- "Appreciation of this novel depends entirely on one's political attitudes toward the war in Iraq and the presidency of George W. Bush." Deirdre Donahue in USA Today (11 August)
- "For a while the talk is exhilarating, if the reader shares the characters' beliefs", Laurie Stone in New York Newsday (22 August)
- "Less a character than a mouthpiece for spasms of anti-Bush sentiment -- the word "rhetoric" implies too much thought -- Jay will probably leave a lot of readers identifying with that "we." He speaks for those who watched angrily and hopelessly as war with Iraq went from theoretical to inevitable to disastrous." Keith Phipps in The Onion (18 August)
- "Checkpoint is real in the way Candide was for Voltaire's contemporaries, a polemic couching itself in the guise of fictional dialogue." John Ziebell in the Las Vegas Mercury (30 September)
A rare, nuanced take came from just north of the border, in Ken Babstock's review in The Globe and Mail (7 August), in which he thought:It's left to the readers, ultimately, to frame and contextualize Jay's argument and, unaware they are doing it, to make a kind of moral choice in the process.The framing and contextualizing many of the American reviewers did was of a different sort, hearing, perhaps, only the words and arguments familiar from what political discourse had been reduced to for much of 2004 in the United States, the very "wild talk" Wieseltier decried, rather than also considering the character and situation Baker had placed him in. Possibly the situation in the US in the summer of 2004 prevented reviewers from considering the book with the necessary objectivity or distance, blinding them to anything beyond the anti-Bush rhetoric (which, it should be noted, many reviewers had little issue with).
While many of the most prominent and early reviews ranged from negative to scathing, there was no consensus regarding the book, and many reviewers did offer more tempered criticism, with several thinking Checkpoint was at least a modest success. In the Seattle Times Michael Upchurch went so far as to say: "Checkpoint comes down unmistakably on the side of civility and political process, not assassination. But it's the book's inward rage that sticks with you." -- a far cry from the prevailing opinions. Other more generous readings appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The New York Review of Book (Lorrie Moore, 4 November), and from John Freeman (here at The Portland Phoenix).
Among the few reviews to offer a broader, more open-minded consideration of Checkpoint is Andrew Palmer's useful piece in RainTaxi (fall, 2004). He took particular note of the reactions to the text, noting:Even though this distinction has generally been glossed over in the popular discourse on Checkpoint, the array of responses to the characters' views is telling, providing a kind of Rorschach test for readers' positions on Bush and Iraq. Those who support the war in Iraq see Jay and Ben as unthinking Bush bashers. Some have even read the novel as a parody of anti-Bush rhetoric. Those who do not support the war in Iraq praise the novel for advancing opinions similar to their own. If there is parody, they fail to see it. Such different responses testify to the ambiguity of the novel's message, and indicate that Baker's position -- that is, the position of the book, rather than the characters -- may lie somewhere in between the two extremes.Palmer gets to the crux of the matter, that in this case critical interpretation has been superseded by partisan cheerleading (and/or denunciation). Not everyone agrees with Baker's approach: Charles Taylor, for one, thinks the book "is a bad book and finally a spineless one", and he can't understand: "What is the point of imagining such a premise if you defuse it before you begin ?" (Salon, 16 August), but generally reviewers were less concerned with that and thought Baker had presented the anti-Bush case -- in both tone and substance -- well (and/or accurately), with some agreeing with those sentiments, and others denouncing them as mere ranting.
In many of the reviews the to-do about the book finds mention. It is also noteworthy that a considerable number of reviews specifically also refer to Baker's own comments about the book (most frequently a 9 August interview in Newsweek7). Again one finds the book is not allowed to stand on its own, but rather seen through a perspective forced on it from outside. Arguably, an author knows better than anyone what his or her books is meant to be, but this does not always translate into useful insight. The dangers should also be apparent -- and one wonders about reviews such as Timothy Noah (Slate, 5 August) in which he admits to having to "revise" his views after reading a Baker-interview.
The fairly limited range of readings offered by reviewers of Checkpoint is striking. While it is tempting to blame the reviewers for what generally look like misreadings, or at least a failure to properly engage with the text on its own terms, some of the blame surely must also be put on the book itself. Possibly, of course, the majority of reviewers are correct, and Baker has penned a simplistic screed reflecting the political moment. If he was doing something more (and we find it hard not to think he was), then he was certainly not nearly successful, eliciting the reactions he did.
Given the limited review coverage afforded most books published nowadays, one can hardly complain that Checkpoint received too little. Yet for such a widely reviewed title the coverage was remarkably inadequate. Among the most extensive reviews were online ones (at Slate and Salon), while many newspapers opted for, at best, cursory -- and generally simplistic -- treatment of the book. Literary journals will presumably tackle the book in the future (and the academic papers can't be far behind), and it remains to be seen whether the book will get a fair shake. So far, however, rather than being considered a fiction providing an insight into the times it has become a symbol of them; in the near future it seems unlikely to be seen any differently.
Notes1 Note that we could not obtain access to all the reviews of the book. Notable reviews that we were unable to consult include P.J. O'Rourke's in The Los Angeles Times (8 August) and Erich Eichman's in the Wall Street Journal (6 August).
2 The complete review's review also jumped the gun (appearing 6 August) -- as did, more surprisingly, two German reviews, in the FAZ and taz.
3 The most in-depth response to Wieseltier's review is a letter-essay by Rick Moody in the October issue of The Believer (not freely accessible online), but there were also very many weblog mentions; see our round-up at the Literary Saloon.
4 Reviews that mentioned Wieseltier's review include those found in Salon (Charles Taylor, 16 August), The New York Review of Book (Lorrie Moore, 4 November), Boston Phoenix, and RainTaxi.
5 A rare instance when he is willing to give Baker some credit comes in a (typical) unnecessary and ridiculous parenthetical aside: "About the deranging influence of blogs Baker makes a sterling point."
6 Jay's mental state was often too easily (if at all) explained away. As significantly, his anti-abortion view was, while frequently mentioned, rarely actually addressed -- perhaps because it upset the neat anti-/pro-Bush divide that the reviewers liked to read into the book.
7 Reviews mentioning that interview include those in Slate, Baltimore City Paper, the Seattle Times, and Entertainment Weekly.
- Return to top of the page -
The Reviews: in the UKCheckpoint received considerable attention in the UK. Several articles described the controversy as it unfolded in the US (notably Andrew Gumbel's 30 June piece in The Independent (no longer freely available on the Internet), and then Sam Leith's good overview in the Telegraph). The book itself was only published in September, a month after it had gone on sale in the US (and Germany), and review coverage then was widespread but often slight1. Short reviews dominated -- including in publications such as the Times Literary Supplement (8 October, Mark Kamine), the Independent on Sunday (Laurence Phelan, 5 September), and The Observer (Hugo Carmody, 5 September). In addition, one major review (in The Independent, 6 September) was not an original review, but rather reprinted a John Freeman review widely published in the US earlier2.
Despite what might have been taken as warnings from across the pond, simplistic judgments were also found in the UK: Chris Petit, for example, dubiously complained about Jay: "There to voice Baker's indignation, he makes neither an interesting nor a believable killer"3 (The Guardian, 11 September). Generally, however, there was a greater willingness to consider the work on the basis of the text -- though sometimes that only went so far. In the Daily Telegraph (15 September) Caroline Moore wrote:In fact, when I first read Checkpoint, I was surprised. All those Republicans, I reasoned, must have misread this weird novella. It seemed to me to be an intermittently funny (if cruel and somewhat unfair) satire upon the dangerously self-deluding nature of anti-war rhetoric.Stunningly, she chose not to rely on internal evidence: again what the text was supposed to represent -- this time in the view of the publisher -- trumped what the text actually was:
There is a strong case to be made for this interpretation upon internal evidence.Then I discovered that I had been wrong. Belatedly, I learnt -- from the external evidence of the publisher's notes -- that Checkpoint was actually a tract written from "seething" anti-Bush fury. I felt cheated. As anti-war propaganda, Checkpoint is pathetic.The idea that Checkpoint can be a good book if read one way, and a very bad book if read another way is remarkable, but Moore seems to have stumbled on a common reaction. Most (American) reviewers were subject not only to the pubisher's publicity spin, but also Baker's statements and all sorts of pre-judgments and necessarily saw it as some form of anti-Bush, anti-war propaganda.
Numerous British critics didn't let themselves be bothered by the publisher's claims of what the book was -- and thought the American hysteria surrounding the book excessive (and typically American). They were also willing to read it considerably more broadly than American critics: Hugo Carmody saw it (The Observer, 5 September) as nothing less than:in part, a meditation on the past 50 years of the American presidency and on the progressive failure of America's political class to define America's global role in the world properly.Meanwhile, James Francken called it: "a bold, hectic, daring book" (Sunday Telegraph, 5 September), while Stephen Amidon thought that: "What Checkpoint is really about, then, is the devastating effect of rage on the liberal soul." (Sunday Times, 29 August).
Generally, the British critics allowed the book had some power, but felt it was only a limited success; The Economist (5 September) -- seeing it "more a meditation on action" than a call to action -- was among the exceptions, considering it powerful and effective. More typically, Laurence Phelan gave it four stars (out of five) in the Independent on Sunday (5 September) but said: "Its immediacy gives it impact, but in truth it's only a very slight novel." Amidon found: "Although the book provides a vivid depiction of a hyperventilated liberal mind, it proves less successful as a work of fiction."
Overall, the British critics certainly were more willing to treat the book as a work of fiction, in part perhaps a counter-reaction to the American reviews and general hysteria. Many of the British reviews did mention the fuss surrounding the book in the US -- and Baker's (and the publisher's) statements (though Caroline Moore is the only reviewer who admitted being influenced by them) -- but generally refused to see the political complaints about the book as valid. The book was treated fairly seriously, but hardly like real literature: the space devoted to Checkpoint-reviews was (except in the Telegraph) considerably less than one would expect for such a high profile book; indeed, arguably the best coverage was that found before publication of the book (in the UK), in the article by Sam Leith.Checkpoint asks moral questions. (...) But it is not a work of journalism or history and, escaping by its form the strict duties non-fiction owes to readers, it asks questions about the responsibility and scope of fiction -- about fiction's duty to the truth. Fiction can make express political points. Fiction can include reportage. Fiction can, occasionally, make a substantial political difference (...). But fiction by its nature isn't bound to the sort of rigour, or subject to the sort of comeback, that non-fiction is. Jay is a character, not a proxy for the author.
Notes1 Note that we could not obtain access to all the reviews of the book. Notable reviews that we were unable to consult include Joan Smith's in The Times (4 September) and the 1 October review in the Financial Times.
2 The Times Literary Supplement review (8 October) is by Mark Kamine, who is described as "Assistant Production Manager on The Sopranos", i.e. apparently also US-based, and also reads much more like the American reviews, noting: "it is full of the kind of over-familiar anti-Bush rhetoric we expect from Left-leaning pundits" an that "as to the arguments contra Bush, one leaves the novel exactly where one came in" (suggesting that he believes a central purpose of the novel is to provide anti-Bush ammunition -- very much an 'American' interpretation).
3 The idea that Jay is there "to voice Baker's indignation" is already a startling leap (i.e. offered with no foundation), and Baker surely presents Jay as a not-believable killer on purpose.
- continue to next page -
- Return to top of the page -
Current Issue | Archive | about the crQuarterly | the Literary Saloon | the complete review
to e-mail us:
© 2004 the complete review Quarterly
© 2004 the complete review