the complete review Quarterly
Volume V, Issue 4   --   November, 2004

Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint
The Reactions and Reviews

- page 2 -

The Reviews: in Germany
Weblog Reactions
The Author Speaks


- return to first page -

The Reviews: in Germany

       Remarkably, Checkpoint was published on the same day in German as it was in the US (and a month before it appeared in the UK). The publishing-family connexion (both Knopf and Rowohlt are Bertelsmann imprints) no doubt helped, as did, presumably, the belief that Germany might be particularly receptive to what can be marketed as an anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war book1. There was also more of a visible publicity effort than, for example, in the UK, with a number of Baker profiles and interviews appearing in numerous publications, as well as readings of the novel2 -- the distance (and different language) perhaps allowing for a remove impossible in the US.
       Review coverage was generally serious and dutiful -- Germanic, even -- with reviewers not getting bogged down in the dramatics that marred and marked so much of the American coverage. There were several noteworthy small-publication reviews3, and most of the major papers covered the title.
       Some did see the book as relatively limited: Andrea Köhler thought the sole reason the book was of any interest was: "because it assists in giving expression to a widespread mood in [the US]"4 (Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 14 August), while Gerrit Bartels thought Baker was moved to write it in direct reaction to the Bush actions (taz, 9 August) -- true enough, but not going nearly far enough either. On the other hand, Claudius Seidl's review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (7 August) ventures a more thorough analysis, considering the book both against the background of American reaction and on its own terms. Looking beyond the purely political allows for observations such as:
That's what's dangerous about Baker's book. It doesn't merely tell of madness [insanity]. It dares to come damn close to its subject.5
       Jochen Jung also has doubts about its aesthetic success, but finds some worth in its ambition in his (somewhat presumptuous) review (Die Zeit, 19 August):
It is not a significant book that Baker has written here, for that he's missing the dimension of perceptiveness, as well as of the sinister. It won't accomplish much more after Michael Moore, from whose populism it is far removed. But it is a strong signal that in the supposedly so weary American society there are authors there that express their earnest concerns in such a way. In this respect it is a political piece.6
       Overall, German reactions have proven by far the most balanced and fairest to the book itself, giving it the attention it deserves (unlike the majority of the British reviews) but also not getting drawn into that aspect of the political debate that defeated so many of the American reviewers. The almost universal anti-Bush, anti-war sentiment in Germany did not translate into a ringing endorsement of the book, the German critics accepting Checkpoint as a reflection of (though not -- because fictionally distorted for specific effects -- image of) American political debate, but finding the political position that is presented largely irrelevant in judging the merits of the book. The critics are familiar with the hysteria the book occasioned in the US, and though (on some level) they understand the reasons for it, it remains fundamentally unfathomable to them (and hence can't be factored into judgment of the book) -- just as the jr. Bush-presidency as a whole remains a baffling phenomenon to Germans7. Largely unfamiliar with the level and tenor of debate in the US itself -- Wieseltier's "wild talk" -- it proved far less of a distraction, perhaps the single most important factor in allowing for a level-headed approach to the text.


       1 Michael Moore's books, for example, have done phenomenally well in Germany. Interestingly, Spanish, British, and Danish editions have now appeared, but -- as of this writing -- there is no French edition, although one might have expected to find a receptive audience there too.
       2 Among others, Ulrich Matthes and Robert Gallinowski performed it at the Deutsches Theater, one of the leading German stages, and elswhere.
       3 See, for example, reviews by Burkhard Spinnen (Deutschlandfunk), Klaus Nüchtern (Falter), and Manuel Karasek (
       4 "weil es einer verbreiteten Stimmung im Lande zum Ausdruck verhilft"
       5 "Das ist das Gefährliche an Bakers Buch: Es erzählt nicht bloß vom Irrsinn. Es wagt sich verdammt nah an seinen Gegenstand."
       6 "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."
       7 That a man of such limited intellectual and diplomatic gifts, with such a dangerously narrow world-view could be elected leader of the United States is something few can comprehend.

- Return to top of the page -

Weblog Reactions

       The Checkpoint-controversies attracted considerable interest among both political and literary weblogs (with a decided fall-off in political weblog interest once it became clear that it was much ado about nothing -- or at least not a significant political controversy). Impressively, there was extensive coverage of the book (i.e. the actual content) at numerous literary weblogs within a short time of publication1.
       Reactions at the weblogs tended, naturally, to be more personal, but many also made an effort at an objective assessment of the book. In large part this was in reaction to the pre-publication fuss about the book, the literary weblogs trying to correct the (false) impression that this was primarily (and simply) a book about a plan to assassinate the president. (They were generally also far more successful in this regard than the print media -- though to little effect.)
       Posting commentary (reviews and/or more casual reactions) at a weblog allows for a completely different literary debate; many of the postings, for example, were then extensively commented upon by readers, making for considerably more of a dialogue than found in the print media. Leon Wieseltier's review, for example, was published in The New York Times Book Review on 8 August, but responses to it were printed in the 'Letters' section only in the 29 August edition, losing much of the immediacy2 and hardly fostering literary debate.
       Interesting reactions include the one at Mr. Splendid's Splendid Stuff, bubbling over with enthusiasm -- apparently specifically in response to how the book had been presented in the media:
Baker's book is just that: a book, and between it's covers is a whole lot of rage and confusion and laughter. It's the artistic act of a man wrestling with conflicted feelings during difficult times. It's a cry in the dark, and a brilliant, shining example of free speech.
       However, reader responses and time to let the work sink in more deeply then led the writer to reassess it, as he expressed second (or more careful) thoughts (see the comments to the original post). Again: the print media does not as readily allow for such shifts in opinion.

       The only disappointment that must be noted regarding the literary weblog coverage of Checkpoint was that so few weblogs that might be considered conservative (or pro-Bush3) weighed in, specifically on the book itself. There do not appear to be any reviews or personal discussions of the book on weblogs supportive of the jr. Bush presidency -- a regrettable omission. This may, however, be a book-specific problem, with pro-Bush webloggers simply finding the idea of the book so off-putting that they refused to read it; less sensational novels, one would hope, would not be ignored in this manner. (Of course, it's books like Checkpoint that one would most like to hear pro-Bush inclined readers' reactions to.)

       Literary weblogs seem to have had a very limited influence on the debate about and reception of Checkpoint -- not unexpectedly: they simply reach too small an audience. Nevertheless, the often thoughtful and thorough coverage, especially of the book itself once it was published (most of which was available shortly after the book became available) stands in contrast to much of the other media coverage. Reader comments to this coverage (see, for example, those at The Elegant Variation) suggest it was useful and welcome, and while there is a general tendency for reader-commentary at weblogs to shower webloggers with praise, the fairly extensive give and take suggests real engagement with the topic.
       Literary weblogs weren't of much use to Checkpoint, their influence (and reach) still very limited. Nevertheless, literary weblog coverage of Checkpoint may very well go down as an early example of the potential they have: in closely monitoring the pre-publication to-do (and often doing so in a non-partisan way, in contrast to much of the media (and political weblog) coverage), reviewing the title upon publication, and giving space to debate about it they clearly provided the most extensive and useful coverage of the book, certainly on a day-to-day basis.


       1 The review at Beatrice was available before official publication (7 August), and reviews at J-Walk Blog, Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind, and The Elegant Variation -- as well as Rake's Progress' take -- were all available within a week of publication.
       2 Indeed, the debate about Wieseltier's review was much more fully -- and quickly -- addressed by the (literary) weblogging community; see our round-up at the Literary Saloon.
       3 America's insane ideological labels -- in particular the ridiculous pseudo-split into 'Right' and 'Left' (generally equated with 'Republican' and 'Democrat') -- make one wary of applying any labels (including 'conservative' or 'liberal', etc.) on weblogs. With regards to Checkpoint, however, the proxy-test of pro- or anti-Bush-leanings is sufficient, and it appears that all weblogs that provided coverage of the book which involved actually reading it can be called anti-Bush (and often rabidly anti-Bush).

- Return to top of the page -

The Author Speaks

       David Gates begins his Newsweek-interview with Nicholson Baker by telling readers that:
At first Nicholson Baker told his publisher he wouldn't do any interviews -- he'd just let his new novel, Checkpoint, speak for itself. But since this book is a 115-page dialogue between two characters about assassinating George W. Bush, Baker obviously needed to do some explaining, so last week he agreed to meet two states away from his home in Maine, after his wife had helped prep him.
       The interview appeared in the Newsweek edition dated 9 August, i.e. which went on sale 2 August, more than a week before the book was set to appear. Clearly, agreeing to the interview was an act of desperation on the part of Baker. What had changed wasn't the book itself -- which surely was as self-explanatory as when he had originally declined to do any interviews -- but the widespread hostile reactions to that central plot-device (talk of assassinating the sitting president).
       No doubt the pressure came from his publisher: in commenting upon the poor sales of the book in late August Knopf director of publicity Paul Bogaards thought (even at that late date) that Baker's unwillingness to face the media hurt the book:
Bogaards also acknowledged that Baker might have hurt his own book by giving only a handful of interviews. "More is always helpful," Bogaards said. "You need to take your case to the American public and let the people decide."
       It's a dubious proposition, and in the case of Checkpoint the entire publicity campaign proved catastrophic. Arguably, it's Baker's (and his publisher's) explanations that, more than anything else, killed the book.
       The idea that a work can speak for itself is, apparently, no longer a popular one. Admittedly, one might think -- just hearing about the book -- that Checkpoint requires some explanation, and that an explanation from the author (the one most directly involved with the book) about what he did and why he did it might be useful. But author-explanations tend to be self-serving and limited. Worst of all is when they come, as here, in reaction to something. By the time the first interviews took place, Baker was not speaking about his book, but rather defending it in light of what had been said about it (and lots of very, very bad things had been said about it).
       In the Newsweek-interview Gates says that as Baker was writing the book:
As he typed, he found himself weeping. "I'd never had that experience before," he says, "and I don't think this even comes through in the book. But it was as if I was mourning the war, the stupidity and the wastefulness of what we did. There was no other way to deal with this than to take on the most extreme and the most horrifying response, and see why somebody would consider that, and, ultimately, why it's wrong."
       In providing that explanation and specifically stating that he was taking "on the most extreme and the most horrifying response" and then seeing "why somebody would consider that, and, ultimately, why it's wrong" Baker plays into the critics' hands, limiting the ambit of the book and thus the necessary response. Among other things, this explanation suggests assassination really is a possibility (though in the book Baker presents Jay's plans as largely or entirely unrealistic), takes the issue of Jay's mental instability out of the equation, and suggests there's an easy answer as to "why it's wrong" -- though "why it's wrong" should, on one level, be obvious from the outset (as many of the critics emphasised). Baker's words make much less of the book than is actually there, and play into the hands of the critics (and give them an excuse for not considering the text on its own merits, uninfluenced by Baker's public statements and publicity material). Claiming the book demonstrates why assassinating the president is wrong in these circumstances suggests that's what the purpose of the book is, and that's how it should be judged (by whether it is a successful and/or realistic presentation of the explanation), but as a primer of how to talk someone out of killing President Bush it is entirely unconvincing, presenting a unique situation and a deeply disturbed individual who few readers are likely to be able to identify with
       Baker's comments were thrown in his face by a number of critics, and were mentioned in a surprising number of the reviews. Most notably, in his review at Slate Timothy Noah actually changed his interpretation of the book in light of Baker's interview.
       Many critics and and reviewers also latched onto some of the publicity material released by the publishers, specifically the statement that Baker wrote the book: "in response to the powerless seething fury many Americans felt when President Bush decided to take the nation to war."1 Many were bothered by this, and it even led Caroline Moore (see her review in the Daily Telegraph (15 September)) to change her interpretation of the novel. As quoted previously -- but it's worth repeating -- she originally felt:
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.

There is a strong case to be made for this interpretation upon internal evidence.
       Moving beyond the text, however, led her to reassess it:
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.
       It is unclear why she allowed what the publisher described the novel as being to trump what she had felt it to be, but the reaction seems to have been a not uncommon one (if not always as radical as Moore's).
       Certainly the official publicity material and Baker's interview shaped the debate around the book, especially in the vacuum before the text was made available. Even afterwards, rather than looking for explanations in the text, many found it easier to rely on these.

       Later interviews by Baker have not been nearly as influential in the immediate debate, but are no less troubling. In conversation with Karen Heller in The Philadelphia Inquirer (18 August), Baker continues defending the book in terms that suggest it is much more simplistic than the text itself does:
Their dialogue is "one I was having in my head. This is kind of a Socratic challenge. The talk is confused and self-contradictory in the way actual opinions are."
"We're in the middle of a completely unjustifiable war," says Baker, married to his college sweetheart, the father of two. "I want people to read it and feel better. There's a soothing quality about telling the truth about emotions. Putting them into language is a way of making sense of the unhappiness that a lot of people are feeling. I felt that we owe some act of mourning to the people who have died."
       There has been little reaction to these comments, but it's hard to imagine that his hope for "people to read it and feel better" won't haunt him. Certainly, such statements make it easier for critics to ridicule the book (and its misguided author): aside from the fact that few people bothered to read it, we have found no response from anyone suggesting reading the book made them "feel better". Similarly, Baker's suggestion that he is "telling the truth about emotions" is fatally undermined by his two characters, the mentally unstable Jay and the ultra-passive Ben, neither of whom seem particularly likable (leaving their political opinions aside). Finally, to offer Checkpoint as an "act of mourning to the people who have died" is gallingly presumptuous. Baker seems to be trying to stake out the moral high ground with his defence of his novel; the only thing that is surprising is that this strategy hasn't backfired even more strongly.
       An 8 September interview with Alasdair Palmer in the Daily Telegraph2 also provides critics with additional fodder. Baker had repeatedly stated he was not advocating the assassination of the president, but by wording his opposition as he does here shoots himself in the foot:
"The thought of the assassination of the President, or even of his untimely death, makes me wince."
       Here's an author who can conceive of an assassin employing "radio-controlled flying saws" and huge boulders, who can describe the torments racking a truly tortured soul for over a hundred pages, and all he can say is that the actual murder of the president would cause him ... to "wince" ?
       He also seem to fundamentally misunderstand (or wilfully misstates) what many find objectionable:
"I'm not advocating the murder of anyone," he explains down the telephone line from his New England farmhouse. "That's a basic misunderstanding of the book. It is a novel, not a political tract. I am exploring some questions raised by the war in Iraq -- about the responses of people who are opposed to that war, but feel there is nothing they can do to stop it.
"The book is not political; it's pre-political. It's an emotional response. It can't be used to support politicians of either the Left or the Right, because it only has two characters, one of whom -- the one who wants to kill the President, and who espouses the most violently anti-Bush views -- is clearly a nutcase.
       Surely, what most of the critics take issue with is that Checkpoint even presents a character who considers assassinating the president, i.e. suggests assassination as a possible course of action. No one beyond the very fringes of debate accused Baker of advocating murder, and to suggest that that is "a basic misunderstanding of the book" suggests it's Baker who misunderstands the reaction to the book. (It seems unlikely that Baker is this obtuse; presumably, he is instead trying to reframe the debate and reposition the book in the public's mind. No question: it was a bit late for that.)
       Discrediting his own character -- dismissing Jay as someone who "is clearly a nutcase" (and, by implication, someone who neither need nor can be taken seriously) -- is also an odd approach to take. Admittedly, the textual evidence suggests this in any case; nevertheless, removing any doubt undermines the reading several of the more sympathetic reviewers offered.
       Perhaps Baker's claims for the book do strike a chord with potential readers, but given all that had been written about Checkpoint by this time his words sound like a desperate last-gasp effort to save what can't be saved any more:
"The book is a heartbroken lament at the innumerable fires our country deliberately set in a crowded theatre of war . . . It's raising questions and asking people to think about the war and its moral cost."
       It's questionable the book could ever have been foisted on the public with this explanation; given the critical response and reviews it sounds simply ridiculous. Baker seems sincere, yet he does his book a disservice by presenting it in this -- at best -- wishful-thinking manner. Again, he seems to be trying to save the book from its critics, but he neither answers them nor does he realistically reframe the debate: his vision of the book is -- for both those who have read it and those who are merely aware of the reviews and commentary on it -- entirely unbelievable3.
       Baker also gave an interview to the Frankfurter Rundschau (7 October; no longer available online, though excerpts can be found here). Interestingly, he does not sell Jay as short as he did to the Daily Telegraph:
Na ja, Jay ist ein wenig verstört -- aber eigentlich nicht paranoid, finde ich.

(Well, Jay is a bit disturbed -- but not really paranoid, I think.)
       The conversation is a more political one than the previous ones, with Baker possibly playing more to a German audience that can take (or even welcomes) a stronger dose of anti-Americanism:
Jeder in diesem Land trägt mit an dieser Schuld. Die Leute, die wie ich gegen diesen Krieg waren, haben es nicht geschafft, ihre Argumente klar genug zu artikulieren. Wir haben es nicht geschafft, laut genug zu schreien, um ihn zu verhindern. Unsere Eingaben und Lichterketten haben nichts bewirkt. Wir alle haben uns bei der Welt zu entschuldigen. Und ich verstehe Checkpoint als eine Art indirekte Entschuldigung. Wir haben der Welt ein großes Unrecht angetan. Das tut mir Leid.

(Everyone in this country [the US] shares in this blame. The people that, like me, were opposed to the war, did not manage to articulate their arguments clearly enough. We did not manage to scream loudly enough to prevent it. Our petitions and candle-vigils effected nothing. We all have to apologise to the rest of the world, and I think of Checkpoint as a sort of indirect apology. We have done the world a great injustice. I regret that.)
       Again, Baker is hardly reassuring with the implication that louder screaming might have helped, and that real action -- not petitions and the like -- could have influenced policy.

       It's amazing that Knopf director of publicity Paul Bogaards could believe that more author-interviews could have helped Checkpoint. In fact, it's surprising that his critics haven't taken Baker more to task for some of what he's said in defence of his book. Bogaards believes: "You need to take your case to the American public and let the people decide", and it's interesting that a publisher would not see the book as being 'the case', but rather thinks an author must (re-)articulate and present it. In the case of Checkpoint the result has been nothing less than disastrous.

       Perhaps the publisher's and author's statements about and explanations of Checkpoint are the ones that can help in a 'true' reading of Checkpoint. If so, it's remarkable how they have failed: their words have actually backfired and explicitly been blamed by several reviewers for leading to less sympathetic readings of the text, and very few have echoed Baker's interview-explanations: people simply can't see it that way.
       Baker's interview-statements are, presumably, an effort to take the book back from the critics, and try to get readers to consider it differently; unfortunately, his approach is so unrealistic that it seems unlikely to convince anyone. To interject a personal note: we found the statements and claims put forward by Baker in these interviews so off-putting and disconcerting that, had we read them before reading the book itself, we would never have even considered reading Checkpoint. They have also, in retrospect, cheapened the book: Baker denies all the depth we originally found in it, making it far more difficult to treat it in any way seriously. Originally, it did appear to be a text of considerable interest; now we're not so sure -- and that's all Baker's doing.
       Would that Baker had stuck to his instincts and refused to do any interviews ! Would that all authors refused !


       1 The Alfred A. Knopf press release does not include the words "powerless seething", but at some point their publicity material clearly did, as numerous commentators quote those words and ascribe it to Knopf. (See Jennifer Reese's review in Entertainment Weekly (13 August) and Brace Yourself by Victor Davis Hanson (National Review); see also Caroline Moore's review in the Daily Telegraph (15 September).)
       2 With two serious reviews, an excellent overview of the controversy before the book was published in the UK, and this interview, the British Telegraph -- despite ostensibly being conservatively oriented -- provided by far the best coverage of Checkpoint by any prrint media outlet.
       3 This does not mean his words don't have any validity; he may believe them (he does sound sincere) -- but given the circumstances they are of no use.

- Return to top of the page -


       Nicholson Baker's Checkpoint was one of the most discussed books of 2004, an international cause célèbre. Unfortunately, most of the fuss was about what the book was (ostensibly) about, rather than the book itself. And even that couldn't be parlayed into much sales-success: Checkpoint flopped in the US, and does not appear to have done particularly well elsewhere.
       The book was widely discussed, highlighting the best and the worst in the information age: irresponsible judgments by those who hadn't even read the text marked the ugly beginning of the public debate, but Checkpoint also saw a relatively new forum, literary weblogs, handle the topic particularly well.
       Extensive review coverage did not mean good review coverage -- neither in the sense of positive nor perceptive coverage -- but Baker got enough of a shake that it's hard to think it was an entirely unfair one. Many thought the book's appeal would be divided along party-lines, but that proved too simplistic too. As it turned out, the book found few readers and fewer fans even among the devoted anti-Bush crowd.
       One review -- Leon Wieseltier's in The New York Times Book Review -- proved too strong for anyone's good, again diverting attention from the text at hand. But Baker's complaint: "But those critics have just misunderstood the book" couldn't account for the widespread dismissal of Checkpoint: if everyone 'misunderstands' a book, then at some point the author has to take some responsibiliffens ty too.
       Baker's own interview-statements, as well as some of the publisher's publicity material, didn't help the cause (or the readers) either. In fact, it's surprising that they haven't hurt it more. As to the long-term prospects of the book: perhaps the hope is that it is soon forgotten, a book concerned with a specific political moment (the reaction to it certainly can be seen as such) that everyone would rather leave behind.
       Lost in almost all the to-do was the book itself, a novel that seems worthy of more serious attention than most were willing to give it. Reasoned analysis was perhaps near-impossible in the political climate of the summer of 2004, where the public debate about the consequences of the jr. Bush administration's "catastrophic success" (as the president himself called it) in Iraq was nearly as hysterical as much of the argument in Baker's book. Sadly, Baker's own efforts in (apparent) defense of the book continue to undermine a neutral reading of the text. So it looks like it will be a while before any is possible.
       Baker is a popular enough author that Checkpoint will likely survive as a curiosity in the publisher's catalogue; it's dismal (sales) failure in the US -- and it's topicality -- would serve as good excuses to avoid bothering with a paperback reprint in 2005, but a continuing trickle of public interest will likely remain; the ugly stain of the jr. Bush presidency will not be quickly forgotten, and Baker's book might eventually be considered a worthy representative book of these politically dismal times after all. And it's possible that it does take off in one or more foreign countries, where the controversy has not received as much attention.

       In sum: this was an interesting chapter in literary history, but very far from a great one.

- Return to top of the page -


Checkpoint: Reviews: Nicholson Baker:

- return to first 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