Target: The President; Nicholson Baker Talks about His Controversial New Novel, 'Checkpoint'

By Gates, David | Newsweek, August 9, 2004 | Go to article overview

Target: The President; Nicholson Baker Talks about His Controversial New Novel, 'Checkpoint'


Gates, David, Newsweek


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. Her best question: "Are you genuinely crazy?"

One of Baker's characters, Jay--Baker calls him "the eccentric guy"--certainly is. In the grip of an impotent rage against the Iraq war, he summons his old friend Ben to a Washington hotel room, where he announces that he's plotting to kill Bush with either "radio-controlled flying saws," a boulder made of depleted uranium or self-guided homing bullets, which you put in a box along with a photograph of the person you want to shoot. (Jay now has the bullets "marinating.") By the way, Jay has also come to believe in every conspiracy theory from the notion that AIDS was a consequence of germ-warfare experiments to a Baker original: that the CIA promoted abstract painting. It becomes Ben's mission to talk him down. Sure, needless to say, a novel is a novel: "I don't actually think it would be such a hot idea for somebody to assassinate the president," Baker says. But also needless to say, that won't mollify people who think he's crossed the line.

Baker's previous outrages have mostly been against purely literary decorum. Such novels as 1988's "The Mezzanine" (about buying a pair of shoelaces) to the 1992 phone-sex dialogue "Vox" (briefly notorious because Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to Bill Clinton) have little conventional plot or character development. What makes Baker radically original is his minute obsessiveness and his willingness to entertain inappropriate subjects (such as his own envy of John Updike) and literary modes, from the sentimental ("The Everlasting Story of Nory," about the narrator's young daughter) to the pornographic ("The Fermata," whose main character takes creepy advantage of his ability to stop time). "Checkpoint" provides even fewer conventional satisfactions--anybody looking for a postmodern "Manchurian Candidate" will be really, really disappointed. But "Checkpoint" takes Baker's obsessiveness and inappropriateness into the public and political realm, and it's getting him the attention he clearly both dreads and craves.

"Checkpoint" won't be published until Aug. 10, but already Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh and right-wing bloggers have Baker in their cross hairs. "This is a book in the elitist literary circles," Limbaugh told his audience. "The publisher is Knopf, the same publisher of Bill Clinton's autobiography, 'My Lie' [sic]... How far does the Bush hatred have to go before every fair-minded American says, 'Enough'?" It's easy to sneer at Limbaugh for confusing a novelist with a character--would he do the same with Stephen King?--but "Checkpoint" did, in fact, originate in Baker's own fury, grief and helplessness over Iraq. "I was plodding along, writing my little books," he says, "and then suddenly this thing speared into my life and it just took me over." He lost a month of 2003 to his obsession with the news, swore off Google News and blogs--he now has a Post-It on his screen saying only e-mail--and finally wrote the first draft of "Checkpoint" in April 2004, during the siege of Fallujah, because he could think about nothing else. …

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