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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Checkpoint

by
Nicholson Baker


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Checkpoint



Title: Checkpoint
Author: Nicholson Baker
Genre: Novel
Written: 2004
Length: 115 pages
Availability: Checkpoint - US
Checkpoint - UK
Checkpoint - Canada
Contrecoup - France
Checkpoint - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid story, well presented -- but an ugly message

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Sun-Times D 11/8/2004 Richard Roeper
Daily Telegraph . 15/9/2004 Caroline Moore
The Economist . 2/9/2004 .
Entertainment Weekly F 13/8/2004 Jennifer Reese
FAZ . 7/8/2004 Claudius Seidl
Globe & Mail . 7/8/2004 Ken Babstock
The Guardian . 11/9/2004 Chris Petit
The Independent . 6/9/2004 John Freeman
Independent on Sunday . 5/9/2004 Laurence Phelan
The LA Times . 8/8/2004 P.J. O'Rourke
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 14/8/2004 Andrea Köhler
The NY Rev. of Books . 4/11/2004 Lorrie Moore
The NY Times Book Rev. F 8/8/2004 Leon Wieseltier
The Observer . 5/9/2004 Hugo Carmody
Salon F 16/8/2004 Charles Taylor
San Francisco Chronicle . 19/8/2004 David Kipen
Slate . 5/8/2004 Timothy Noah
Sunday Telegraph . 5/9/2004 James Francken
Sunday Times C 29/8/2004 Stephen Amidon
taz . 9/8/2004 Gerrit Bartels
The Times . 4/9/2004 Joan Smith
TLS . 8/10/2004 Mark Kamine
USA Today . 11/8/2004 Deirdre Donahue
The Village Voice B 17/8/2004 Benjamin Strong
Wall St. Journal . 6/8/2004 Erich Eichman
The Washington Post . 8/8/2004 Jennifer Howard
Die Zeit . 19/8/2004 Jochen Jung


  Review Consensus:

  Many somewhere between very underwhelmed and outraged, but quite a few think it packs a decent punch

  From the Reviews:
  • "I found it intermittently insightful and darkly humorous, but overall it was pointless, plotless and cheap. (...) Checkpoint is just fiction -- unsettling, overwrought, ineffective fiction." - Richard Roeper, Chicago Sun-Times

  • "As an anti-war diatribe, I have seldom read anything so lame, so simultaneously ranting and dull, outside the terrifyingly private and needy "blogs" (Internet diaries) one stumbles across online. In fact, when I first read Checkpoint, I was surprised. All those Republicans, I reasoned, must have misread this weird novella. (...) As anti-war propaganda, Checkpoint is pathetic." - Caroline Moore, Daily Telegraph

  • "What's most shocking about this gaga wisp of a book isn't the putative sensationalism of its silly, tasteless premise. (Radio-controlled flying saws ? Please.) It's that one of our most, sparkling, witty, and original writers has produced something so artless, clumsy, and stupefyingly bad. (...) Checkpoint makes Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 look like a work of Jamesian subtlety and nuance. There isn't a graceful or interesting sentence in this blunt, plotless, obscenity-laden screed." - Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly

  • "Es ist meistens ein lustiges, oft ein grausames und immer ein ziemlich irres Zweipersonenstück, ein Kammerspiel, ein Drehbuch für einen Film von Quentin Tarantino oder David Mamet. Und es ist zugleich ein sehr gefährliches Buch. (...) Das ist das Gefährliche an Bakers Buch: Es erzählt nicht bloß vom Irrsinn. Es wagt sich verdammt nah an seinen Gegenstand." - Claudius Seidl, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "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. Checkpoint is like a hornet: It's small, quiet, with a sinister aspect to the drag of its midday peregrinations, and it has a stinger: conscience." - Ken Babstock, The Globe and Mail

  • "While the subject is grave, the rhythm and wording are more suggestive of Baker's forte, humour, and raise awkward questions about his motive. The book tries to be funny, but isn't." - Chris Petit, The Guardian

  • "(A) brief but provocative little Frisbee of a tale. (...) The goal of Checkpoint, it seems, is to take the internal-combustion process of hatred and anger and make it visible -- which Baker does brilliantly. Jay's speech begins slowly, then meanders, then turns frantic and breathless. By the conclusion, it's as if he has used up every possible molecule of oxygen in the room." - John Freeman, The Independent

  • "Its immediacy gives it impact, but in truth it's only a very slight novel. It's a breeze to read and has a good measure of Baker's usual surreal and devious sense of humour, but it's just a piece of provocation, not a story." - Laurence Phelan, Independent on Sunday

  • "Um es klar zu sagen: Checkpoint ist weder eine politische noch eine literarische Provokation; unter ästhetischen Gesichtspunkten kann man das Buch ganz vergessen. Interesse verdient es aus dem einzigen Grund, weil es einer verbreiteten Stimmung im Lande zum Ausdruck verhilft (.....) Anstatt die Charaktere subtiler, den Dialog komplexer und komischer zu gestalten, verfällt der Autor immer wieder in ironieresistente Phrasen, die ungefähr so sublim sind wie George W. Bushs Wahlkampfparolen selbst." - Andrea Köhler, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Political argument is, of course, easier than political literature. And one can wonder how Baker's quick, stripped, cry of a book can succeed as the latter. But literature occurs when one feels life on the page. And one feels life most often when one hears more than one voice in conversation there. Does the reader of Checkpoint hear more than one voice ? Oh yes, I think one doesn't have to listen too hard to hear a roar." - Lorrie Moore, The New York Review of Books

  • "(S)cummy (.....) Except for its inflammatory theme -- Baker's novels have always been desperate to be noticed, and here he breaks new ground in his sensationalism -- Checkpoint could be dismissed as another of Baker's creepy hermeneutical toys. (...) Like all of Baker's books, this one is much too close to its subject. This novel whose subject is wild talk is itself wild talk, and so another discouraging document of this age of wild talk." - Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Angry the book certainly is, but it is also entertaining and some of Ben and Jay's exchanges are as funny as anything Baker has ever written. (...) Checkpoint is certainly an oddity among the fiction which has been published during this election year, but it also demonstrates Nicholson Baker's command of dialogue, his sure way with American vernacular and his instinctive gift for attracting attention." - Hugo Carmody, The Observer

  • "(H)e's written a book that toys with the idea of killing Bush, and that toys with ideas about the Americans and Iraqis who have already been killed, without ever confronting the moral seriousness of either. Baker writes from a height nearly as removed as Wieseltier's, a very comfortable perch where inhumanity is something to be clucked over, not an abyss that must, at some point, be stared into. Checkpoint is a bad book and finally a spineless one. Its shame isn't that it features a character who speaks in favor of assassinating a president but that it treats such a dire act and such a dire moment in our political history as occasion for another Nicholson Baker novelty performance, another opportunity to trot out the decent, ordinary nebbishes who populate his world." - Charles Taylor, Salon

  • "Nicholson Baker's sly, slender but important one-act play masquerading as a novel" - David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Reading Jay's crazed rationale for killing Bush made me want to pick up the phone, tip off the FBI, and turn myself in for not notifying the feds the moment an advance copy appeared in my mailbox. Jay's violent outbursts warp an otherwise convivial bull session between two like-minded and reasonably well informed old friends. (...) 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." - Timothy Noah, Slate

  • "Checkpoint is a bold, hectic, daring book, a far angrier work than any of Baker's previous novels. But it does not look out of place alongside his earlier fiction." - James Francken, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Checkpoint is no thriller. Neither is it a debate about Bush or his policies. Both of Bakerís characters take the presidentís murderous corruption as a given. (...) What Checkpoint is really about, then, is the devastating effect of rage on the liberal soul. (...) Although the book provides a vivid depiction of a hyperventilated liberal mind, it proves less successful as a work of fiction." - Stephen Amidon, Sunday Times

  • "Nun besticht dieser Dialogroman weniger durch seine literarischen Qualitäten, sondern vor allem durch die Tatsache, dass ein renommierter Schriftsteller wie Nicholson Baker sich in einem gewiss schnell geschriebenem Buch (...) mit aktueller Tagespolitik auseinander setzt und so in den Präsidentschaftswahlkampf eingreift. (...) Bakers Dialog, der auch seine skurrilen und alltäglichen Momente hat, ist allerdings da argumentativ schwach, wo Jay als eine sowieso etwas aus dem Gleis geratene Persönlichkeit dargestellt wird" - Gerrit Bartels, die tageszeitung

  • "There is a half-hearted nod to plausibility. (...) It is insufficient. Nicholson Baker doesn't make us care about his characters or their actions, and as to the arguments contra Bush, one leaves the novel exactly where one came in." - Mark Kamine, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Nicholson Baker's latest novel is the slim, compelling Checkpoint. But reader be warned: Appreciation of this novel depends entirely on one's political attitudes toward the war in Iraq and the presidency of George W. Bush. (...) It is less a novel and more of a passionate cry from the heart about American foreign policy that Baker clearly opposes." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "Because Checkpoint essentially is a two-man play, it suffers, as Vox did, from the limits of the spoken word. (...) With the clock ticking on Jay's promise to execute Bush by the end of the day, juxtaposed against the revelations of his sad-sack backstory, Checkpoint maybe has more drama than Baker's anti-narrative method can handle. Still, the heated dialogue produces unexpected moments of levity." - Benjamin Strong, The Village Voice

  • "Are you an angry literary novelist looking to vent some righteous anger about the state of the country and grab some attention in the process ? Write a quickie polemic that masquerades as a novel about killing the president. It's worked for Nicholson Baker, whose new book, Checkpoint (...) has touched off a brouhaha out of all proportion to its size and merits." - Jennifer Howard, The Washington Post

  • "Es ist kein bedeutendes Buch, das Baker hier geschrieben hat, er weiß es gewiss selbst, dafür fehlt ihm die Dimension der Erkenntnis, auch des Unheimlichen. Es wird neben Michael Moore, von dessen Populismus es weit entfernt ist, nicht viel zusätzlich bewirken. Aber es ist ein starkes Zeichen in der angeblich so maroden amerikanischen Gesellschaft, dass es dort Autoren gibt, die ihrer ernsthaften Sorge auf solche Weise Ausdruck geben. Insofern ist es doch ein Stück Politik." - Jochen Jung, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Checkpoint is extremely bare for a novel. Narrative is reduced essentially entirely to dialogue, the novel presented like a playscript without even stage directions. The date and locale are given ("May 2004 / Adele Hotel and Suites / Washington, D.C."), but then, aside from the characters' words, the only descriptions of any sort are three separate sound-effects (the clicking of a tape-recorder, and several "Flump!"s). Checkpoint is a dialogue (with a brief interruption from room service); it is a confession and a debate, but more than anything, it is a therapy session.
       Jay telephoned Ben, and sounded desperate enough to get Ben to drive to this D.C. hotel where Jay is staying. They haven't seen each other for several years. They were friends, leading similar lives, but Jay's went off-track. Their adult life-starts were almost identical: teaching jobs, marriage, kids, but only Ben has managed to hang onto these; Jay has lost them all.
       Jay has gone through any number of jobs, working as little more than a day-labourer across much of the US. He's troubled, and there appears to be some history of some mental instability, Ben at one point saying:

Let me see your pupils. I have a feeling that you're going back to the bad time. Are you ?
       Jay denies it, but his words and plans suggest otherwise. The reason he has called Ben here, and asked him to record their conversation, is because he does have something big in mind:
JAY: Okay. Uh, I'm going to -- okay, I'll just say it. Um.
BEN: What is it ?
JAY: I'm going to assassinate the president.
BEN: What do you mean ?
JAY: Take his life.
       Ben is appropriately freaked out, uncertain how seriously to take his friend's threat. Very quickly it is suggested that the threat isn't serious at all: Jay explains he's considering several methods, including using "radio-controlled flying saws" or a huge boulder made of a hundred tons of depleted uranium "that has a giant ball bearing in the center of it so that it rolls wherever I tell it to".
       But Jay isn't entirely delusional: there's enough of a threat here -- including a suggestion of other, more realistic methods -- that the possibility that he's just crazy (or sane) enough to try and go through with it remains in the air for almost the entire book.
       Ben, who seems to have played this role of therapist-conversation partner for Jay before, understands that Jay isn't so much threatening to commit murder as he is threatening suicide; any attempt on the president's life, regardless of how unrealistic, would inevitably end in the would-be assassin's death. Jay isn't seeking a solution to the world's problems -- killing the president would hardly change matters much -- but to his own, which he thinks he can find in a martyr's death. So Checkpoint is, ultimately, a novel of talking someone down off the ledge.
       Jay's life is a mess: "I've made a bollix of my life, that's for sure", he understands. Estranged from his family, doing menial labour (if any), he also "nearly had to declare personal -- insolvency, shall we say". Worst of all is the effect of the moral and political corruption he sees all around him, especially the outrages of the jr. Bush administration, with the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 finally pushing him at least near the edge. American president George jr. Bush, the ridiculous figure who set most of this in motion, became the focal point of Jay's anger and pain; as a highly visible figurehead he also is the most obvious target.
       The horrors of what happened in Iraq, and what the administration has done in its so-called war on terror tear at Jay. Everywhere he turns, everything he hears disgusts and shocks him. It is civilization gone awry, and he can't bear it.
       Ben also finds the junior Bush and his policies and actions repugnant, but has come to terms with the situation. He argues Bush won't be re-elected, or even if he is, eventually it will all be part of distant history. Tellingly, Ben's academic work deals with older history, previous administrations. He is unwilling (or unable) to confront this one head-on. Jay confronts it one head-on, but it's like running into a concrete wall. Ironically, of course, even Ben has to acknowledge:
Well, you know, the weird things about this administration, actually, is that the big guys in it are historical figures already. They've lurched back to life.
       Dusty relics -- "these rusted hulks, these zombies" -- like Cheney and Rumsfeld, are back in the thick of things, the failures of old wreaking destruction once again.
       Part of the appeal of Checkpoint is that it isn't just a one-sided conversation, of Ben talking some sense into Jay. Ben agrees with much of what Jay thinks, and doesn't like what the junior Bush unleashed into the world. But Ben's approach is much more passive: he's worried about maintaining the stability of family life, scared of the authorities, and finds an outlet now in photography (capturing the moment in incredible detail -- i.e. freezing the past almost perfectly, as if that could let him remain there). He's scared of pro-active involvement. Rather than work towards change, or be creative, his own therapeutic method of choice is to copy out a book word for word; it's also what he tells his students they should do when they get upset about the war and the like. Ben needs that fixed, reliable anchor.
       Ben offers a variety of arguments to talk Jay out of his plans, including the reminders that he is both unlikely to be successful (the president being well-protected), and that even were he to be successful, that would only mean: "boing, Cheney's driving the truck. He's twice as bad" (American vice president Dick Cheney would become president in the event of the demise of president Bush jr.). Ultimately, it isn't too difficult to talk Jay off the ledge: Jay knew exactly who to reach out for help from. Friendship and support turn out to be more important than all the political matters that seemed to weigh so heavily on Jay. Once he has that helping and supporting hand from Ben, he can process (and, presumably, largely dismiss) the horror.
       The title of the novel is alluded to early on:
JAY: There was a story a year ago, April last year. It was a family at a checkpoint. Do you remember ?
BEN: I'm not sure.
JAY: It was a family fleeing in a car. The mother was one of the few survivors. And she said, "I saw --" Sorry, I can't.
       Jay can't recount the story; it is too horrible. But near the end of his session with Ben, as in the best therapy, catharsis occurs, and he can finally bring himself to relive (or at least tell) it. And Ben completes the healing with an Ersatz-assassination: apparently that's all it takes.

       Checkpoint is not a call to arms but rather against radical action. It seems a reasonable, almost laudable conclusion, but only because Baker has taken the most outrageous of actions -- assassination (made all the more real because, at the time the book was published the target, the junior Bush, was still in office) -- which is per se beyond the pale. The solution offered here -- embrace passivity, crawl into your shell, don't worry too much about what those big, bad politicians are doing -- is entirely insupportable, and yet Baker makes it look like a happy end.
       The biggest weakness of Checkpoint is that Jay is so much on the fringes of society. He is clearly mentally unstable -- not necessarily nuts, but so far outside the norm that he can be dismissed as a kook (or as Ben says, "completely misguided"). Checkpoint is a book that toys with extremes -- Ben's complete passivity and Jay's threats of unacceptable action -- but, of course, Jay's threats are more a cry for help than real threats. The psychological approach to addressing political problems (at least on the individual level) -- there doesn't seem to be a couch involved, but there might as well be -- is also an unsatisfactory one.
       The message of this novel is an ugly one (though entirely different from the widely held pre-publication concerns), but it's cleverly presented and quite artfully done. It's a very short book -- standard play length, more or less -- but Baker paces it quite well, and there is a decent narrative arc. The conversation sounds fairly realistic -- the familiar banter of old friends is especially well captured --, and it would probably play reasonably well on the stage.
       Significant issues are raised, in particular how average citizens deal with the horrible events of the past years and the actions of many of those elected and appointed to the highest offices in the land -- the weight and guilt of being an American in the contemporary world (comparable to being a German after World War II). Murder is, of course, not a solution, but Baker disappointingly offers no alternatives except the most radical -- complete withdrawal.
       Checkpoint is ultimately truly a small novel: despite ostensibly being about changing the course of history it is solely about the redemption of the individual (with the help of some amateur psychotherapy). Society at large is only the concern of the mad, and once they've been cured -- well, apparently society can just go screw itself.

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Links:

Checkpoint: Reviews: Nicholson Baker: Other books by Nicholson Baker under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See also the Index of Contemporary American fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       American author Nicholson Baker was born in 1957. He attended the Eastman School of Music and Haverford College and has written a number of novels (including Vox (1992) and The Fermata (1994)) and some non-fiction (including the account of his obsession with author John Updike, U and I (1991)).

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© 2004-2009 the complete review

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