Checkpoint

I read Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint a couple of days ago. It’s about two guys, Ben and Jay, in a hotel room in DC. Jay wants to kill George W. Bush, Ben tries to talk him out of it. That’s the whole book. It’s simple, fun, funny, and well-executed.

Then went and read some reviews that came out around the time it was published in 2004. I was surprised at how much some of them hated it. The main strikes against it, among the reviews I read, were that 1) it’s too slight to qualify as a novel, 2) it’s not a well-informed argument, and 3) the silliness of the weapons undermines the drama.

So, my reply: 1) It’s not a novel. It’s a one-act play. Anyone can tell looking at it that it’s a play. OK, it calls itself a novel on the front, but who cares? It’s the format and length of a play, it moves like a play, it’s nakedly political/current the way a play allows itself to be. And as the play it is, it’s absolutely successful. 2) Of course it’s not a well-informed argument. The book goes out of it’s way to discuss the difficulty of writing about history as it’s happening. The facts aren’t in, so all we can do is draw angry, ill-informed conclusions about what we do know. And the better-researched these guys’ positions are, the more they would start to sound like talking heads–a real danger for a book like this.  3) The wacky weapons serve as both an early tip-off of the extent of Jay’s unhingedness and a gift to the reader–our cartooney revenge plots literalized. Who at some point in the Bush presidency didn’t want to see him leveled with a large boulder? I admire the way the book weaves realism, melodrama, and absurdity. The very simple concept of the book is complicated by its resistance to a dominant mode.

It’s not a perfect book. The ending kind of falls flat. Some of the dialogue is a little too cute. But I wonder if it’s going to only get better with age: a document of rage over an unjust war, negotiated by one guy’s delusion and another’s pacifism. You could change a few names and re-release it next time America scrounges up enough money to do something this stupid again.

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