Checkmate

A book about killing the president proves a snooze

It is a truth universally acknowledged–okay, among my friends, anyway—that George W. Bush is an arrogant, lying, hypocritical son of a bitch, an offense to the senses every time he grins that God-wants-me-to-be-president grin, a full-blown danger to democracy, not to mention the future of the planet, and when we let our tolerant liberal guard down and let the bile flow, it's nice to imagine him being, I don't know, slapped in the face on national TV by the mother of a dead Marine. Blue-state anger at Bush is intense: however you might want to argue with the details of Fahrenheit 9/11, a lot of people are going to buy the DVD just so they can watch over and over again the closeup of his face when that aide whispers in his ear that the Twin Towers have just been attacked: Bush looks monumentally, iconically stupid, and it makes for a few great moments of cathartic schadenfreude.

But schadenfreude and resentment–which is what schadenfreude plus powerlessness leads to—eat you up inside pretty quick, and they're disastrous for any decent Leftist thinking about American politics. They're also a lousy place from which to write fiction, especially about politics, but that's what Nicholson Baker's tried to do with his new novella, Checkpoint, which is about two guys in a D.C. hotel discussing the idea of killing George W. Bush. Given that Baker's a known literary quantity and a press as prestigious as Knopf (and its lawyers) is behind his book, the novel's naturally garnered some attention—these are the days when convention protesters are being routinely intimidated by the FBI for carrying signs that say they sort of don't understand why we have to kill more innocent Iraqis than were killed on Sept. 11 just to get our imperialistic rocks off—but as fun as it occasionally is, the book's bad in almost every way a novel can be bad: flat in characterization, confused in tone when it isn't being obvious in theme, digressive when it needs to be on point, reductive when some real nuance is indicated with rage standing in for inspiration and righteousness for moral argument. The book is essentially a bout of anger-management therapy for Nicholson Baker, which is no doubt nice for him but is frankly a waste of time for the rest of us.

The story's told entirely in dialogue—Checkpointcould be a play and might (just barely) function agitprop-ically in a public space—which is a problem right away because while Baker is a justly famous recorder of the minute observation registered by the acutely self-conscious observer (cf. The Mezzanine, The Fermata), his dialogue is rarely more than serviceable, and he has a tough time working up an air of reality between outraged would-be assassin Jay and Ben, his old high school pal trying to talk him out of it.

Jay: I'm going to assassinate the president.

Ben: What do you mean?

Jay: Take his life.

Ben: You're shitting me, right?

Jay: No.

Ben: Tell me this is one of your little flippancies.

Jay: It's not a flippancy.

Ben: Come on, Jay. . . .

Ben is a writer/professor of what seems to be Cold War politics—a Left-leaning voice of reason—and he functions the way you might expect, saying, "Whoa there, fella!" kind of things to Jay, who's a seriously frustrated Iraq War protester about to go off the deep end. (We're told Jay's also recently lost a girlfriend and is in financial trouble, which about does it for character development and personal motivation.) Their meeting is supposed to be happening in May 2004, as the Abu Ghraib scandal is unfolding, and given the continuing torrent of outrages in this war, each of which seems to outdo the last, Nicholson does a decent job of reminding us of horrors the torrent may have erased from our memories. For instance, Jay's decision to try to off Bush is inspired by that (real) news story about an Iraqi family that was mistakenly gunned down en masse by U.S. Army personnel at a checkpoint. (The mother shouted to a reporter afterward, "I saw the heads of my two little girls come off.") We're reminded, among other things, that the U.S. has used napalm-like chemicals against civilians and that much of what we've done there and on the home front defies the Geneva Convention, not to mention the U.S. Constitution.

Now one can accept all this–that is, agree with Baker that the Iraqi conflict has been a catastrophic national episode, the worst thing for the American psyche since the 1979 hostage crisis, possibly since Vietnam–and still find the novel, well, insipid. The main problem, to my mind, is that Baker takes the political pressure off his bold premise by making Jay ludicrous at the beginning and simply lame at the end, and the novel can only work if we can take seriously as a proposition the idea that when a president has run the country off the rails as much as Bush has, assassination becomes a politically thinkable (if unwise) response. Only then will the novel have any real stakes as an idea book, rather than just a book that blows off steam. But Baker makes Jay an ironic paranoid, and ironic paranoia as a literary/political style doesn't function effectively (as political satire or as literature) anymore in an age when reality outironizes and outparanoids fiction every day of the week. Baker also takes the air out of the assassination idea when Jay preposterously tells Ben that his weapons of choice to accomplish the deed are: No. 1, "radio-controlled flying saws, they look like little CDs, but they're really sharp, totally deadly," and No. 2, "a huge boulder I'm working on that has a giant ball bearing in the center of it so that it rolls wherever I tell it to." But patently nuts as this all is, Ben continues to argue the politics of assassination with Jay (rather than just calling Walter Reed's mental ward to pick the guy up), and then further listens to Jay's third idea for killing Bush off, which is to simply rush the White House through a hole in the fence and hope the guards on the White House roof are too bored to notice (um, what?). That Jay's pent-up passion for presidential murder is in the end so easily assuaged by dumb symbolic ritual (he takes a hammer and whales on a picture of the chief executive) is all the proof we need that Baker's imagination abandoned him on about page 30.

Hey, we know–it's universally acknowledged, okay?–that Bush has been a disaster, but tonally and morally rudderless novels from outraged Leftists that fantasize about how cool it might be to kill the man ain't gonna do anybody a damn bit of good–it makes the Left look incapable of legitimate response to power, which feeds the Right's glee. And it makes American fiction writers look as politically numskullish and out-of-it as European and Third World writers think they are. It might make Baker feel a little better, but that's no reason to foist it on the world.

Checkpoint: A Novel by Nicholson Baker; Knopf. Hardcover, 128 Pages, $15.95.

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