Point Taken.

As per request of thistlelurid, I thought I’d drop a short review of Nicholson Baker’s 2004 novella, Checkpoint, which is a great read and extremely poignant considering the atmosphere of frustration and fear since this most recent rise of the Republican right in America. The subject matter is extremely inflammatory and echoes (and reflects) the concerns of a great number of American citizens, and undoubtedly many others around the world who feel helpless and angry at the policies of their (or this) ‘elected’ administration.

Checkpoint is the short transcript of a recorded conversation between two gentleman in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. Jay and Ben are friends from long ago, and the former calls the latter for a meeting of emotional support. Ben is horrified to find that Jay has his mind set on one goal: to assassinate the president, George W. Bush. Unwittingly sucked into a nascent plot that would surely destroy the life that he has worked so hard to build, Ben uses rational thought and historical precedent to attempt to sway his friend away from the unthinkable. But just how unthinkable is it? Nicholson Baker touches upon a searing rivulet of truth in the outrage and frustration that characterizes at least half of the American populace – the helplessness, the fear, and the astonishment, but the unwillingness to express it due to fear from the eyes watching in the darkness and the biting social stigma conjured by impossible notions of Neo-Con patriotism and the failure to uphold it.

To say that Jay’s thoughts are unwarranted or companionless is impossible, and while there is logic and humanity in Ben’s furious attempts to calm his unraveling friend, the reader is torn between loyalties to each character because of the honest and realistic nature with which they express themselves. Both are detractors of the Bush administration, and both acknowledge the unforgivable trespasses that are being committed by the heads of that bloody cabinet in the name of the nebulous shibboleths of Freedom and Democracy. Most recently sparked by an incident at a military checkpoint in Iraq, where an entire family was gunned down by U.S. soldiers as they tried to escape the horrific carnage that lay behind them, Jay’s incredible outrage boils over as he recalls reading the mother’s account of her children being killed. This, juxtaposed with the Republican pandering of anti-abortion jargon, waved like a flag of righteousness while nurturing widespread and long-term war that can’t help but target children, only pushes Jay further.


Jay: I have allowed myself to feel that feeling with the people in Fallujah, in Karbala, in Nasiriyah, in Basra, in Baghdad, in Mosul – all these cities. And Afghanistan before that. I’ve seen the pictures. And I feel that they – I mean Bush, any Marine sergeant, any soldier – all these guys are in the war business, one way or another. So they know that there’s a certain risk involved. You can become a casualty of the wars you incite, or that you volunteer for. But these kids who are having their limbs blown off, they don’t even know what’s going on. There’s just a sudden sound of the jet engines. Have you ever heard a Warthog?
Ben: I don’t think so.
Jay: Well, they make this sound.
Arrw. It’s a kind of a walrus sound, almost, it’s really disturbing. Arrw. I don’t know it it’s some sort of adjustment that the engines do as they’re descending, but it’s a fearful sound, it’s like a giant swallowing. And you know, here are some kids playing in a street, they hear this walrus sound, and suddenly there are bits of really hot metal flying through the air. They look down in surprise and their own blood is coming out, and they’re feeling cold. And they’re dying fast. They can’t even explain to themselves what happened. They’re noncombatants. They’re innocent, they’re innocent even of the knowledge that they are innocent. They’re people just living their lives, and now their lives are over.
Ben: It hurts.
Jay: I can’t stand it, Ben! I can’t! I have to do something! You hear the man giving one of his radio addresses, and he has that way he has of slurring his words, as if he’s drunk but he’s not – “Housing sales are at an all time high” – and you think of the war in the streets over there and of him tearing down what’s left of the country, and you feel murderous, just MURDEROUS!
Ben: Feel murderous, by all means. Rage inwardly. Just don’t actually attempt the murder. That’s the dividing line.
Jay: Okay, well, I’m crossing it.
Ben: He’s a person, try to remember that. A person’s a person, as the good doctor said. He’s a human being.
Jay: No, he’s not, he’s forfeited that status.
Ben: He really hasn’t. He’s got that sudden smile that he makes when he’s answering a question. Have you seen it? It looks like he’s not sure how he’s going to finish the sentence, and there’s a second of panic, his brow furrows, and then – ah! – he thinks of a word that he can plug in there. A big presidential word. He says it, and he flashes that childish smile of relief. It’s a little moment of pride – “I made it, guys.”
Jay: I see fear in his look sometimes. He knows what he’s done.

Intrinsically, both men are agreeing. The difference between them is that one is willing to act upon his impulses, and the other doesn’t see this as a viable effort – it would only cause further chaos in an already tottering society, and it would surely kill his friend in the process. The dialogue is effortlessly penned and colloquially phrased; neat and witty without need for jingoism or political scientology. The more outspoken critics of Bush can easily understand and resent the disproportionate trade-in of lost lives for the stagnant and superficial air of freedom in a country (over there) that is more stable when not being stabilized by a foreign power, and a country (over here) that is possibly looking at the most terrible time of American policy and self-identity in living memory. Never before, perhaps not even in the age of McCarthy, have so many Americans been unable to express their fears and their anger without worry of investigation by their own fascistic regime, and this is where Baker’s prose truly shines. Many have certainly thought about the violent removal from office of this warped, clueless man-child and his string-pulling cohorts; fewer may have wished someone would stand up and act upon it. And Baker dares to make the leap that others are too afraid to try, simply by offering a single snapshot of a single person’s inability to continually accept the horrors committed in the name of a country once-resigned to cultivate real freedom and real opportunity. Think of it as a therapy session for his character, for us, and, perhaps for Baker himself. It’s like My Dinner with Andre on methamphetamines.

Ben: Well, you know, the weird thing about this administration, actually, is that the big guys in it are historical figures already. They’ve lurched back to life.
Jay: Like Cheney.
Ben: Cheney was part of the Nixon White House; so was Rumsfeld. You can go to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library and ask to see the Cheney papers. They’re there.
Jay: It’s as if these rusted hulks, these zombies, have fought their way back up out of the peat bogs where they’ve been lying, and they’re stumbling around with grubs scurrying in and out of their noses and they’re going ‘We….are….your….advisers.”
Ben: Precisely.
Jay: I mean they’re there, physically in the White House, making decisions – Dick Cheney! Oh, he’s hunched, man, the corruption has completely hunched and gnarled him. His mouth is pulled totally over on one side of his face. It’s really –
Ben: And around him are all those freshfaced little Republicans.
Jay: Yes, yes, the applecheeked boys with their cruel mouths, starstruck, I swear they fall in love with these drugstore cowboys. George W. Bush, J. Danforth Quayle. Surrounded by fawners who want to Serve Our Leader. Soon they’re going to discover some hormonal thing that leads to right-wing behavior, some very specific deficiency combined with an overdose. You end up mean-spirited, with a high, whiny voice.
Ben: Like Newt.
Jay: Or Orrin Hatch. Or what’s his name, Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. And the thing I can’t figure is, military men seem to want to spend their lives living with other men. Can you make any sense of it? They’re out there on some desolate airbase in the middle of nowhere, protecting some future pipeline – eating with other men, shaving with other men. And then actually defecating with other men.
Ben: It’s a puzzler.
Jay: Shitting with them, day after day after day! How can they endure it?
Ben: I guess it’s like professional football.
Jay: Excuse me for a second, I’ve got to take a dump.
Ben: Sure.
Jay: No, I’m just kidding.
Ben: Oh, I see.
Jay: And then they stand in the briefing rooms tapping a stick on a map. “These, gentlemen, are our targets of opportunity.”
Ben: Yeah, the Democrats–
Jay: And then it begins, the flyovers, and people getting hurt. Bombing “campaigns.”
Ben: The Democrats do seem more real, somehow. Not all of them. But great guys like Barney Frank.
Jay: Barney Frank is great.
Ben: He’s articulate, he’s funny. I love the guy.
Jay: He’s a normal human being.
Ben: Well, and coming from a person such as yourself, that’s quite an endorsement.
Jay: Haven’t you ever thought about killing somebody? Haven’t you?
Ben: Yeah…but not. Not. But yeah.
Jay: Okay then.
Ben: Well, what to do about Dick Cheney? Are we going to kill him, too?
Jay: We certainly should.
Ben: He’s smarter, he’s more corrupt, by which I mean he’s had more time to capitalize on his corruptions, he’s wrecked military procurement–
Jay: But what do you mean, “we”? That’s what you said: “Are we going to kill him?”
Ben: Yeah, well, by “we” I mean “you.”
Jay: Oh, I see.

What was perhaps most striking to me came during my consideration of writing a public review of this book. Just how far does the FBI and Secret Service go to ensure that plots from within do not seek fruition? I have never before in my life realized an inability to express my feelings in words written or spoken. Now, in this post-9/11 America, there are some things that simply cannot be said. Some jokes cannot be made, and some verbalized traumas cannot be presented. We’re living in the New Taboo, where people have lost their humor and their humanity, as if by keeping things silent we take away their power to be real. But they are still very, very real.

I would never publicly condone the killing of a government official, given the repercussions this might arouse, and I don’t think that Nicholson Baker has any pressing need for advocating assassination, either. Checkpoint is the product of the new American lifestyle, in which we finally question ourselves and what we will allow to happen only after we see our fine, fine country foundering on the rocks of the world. It’s healthy to let it out, and Baker is a pro at doing just that.

8 Responses to “Point Taken.”

  1. aerialscribe Says:
    May 24th, 2005 at 10:43 pm

    My compliments to you for posting a review.
    Every time I make a "political" post, I too wonder who beyond my friends is watching, tracking all my little dissents and making notations in a little file that gets filed under "gas chamber", or some equally gruesome label…..
    <sigh>

  2. FunkyPlaid Says:
    May 30th, 2005 at 12:39 am

    Thanks for the good words.
    Yes, I try to stay away from public politics, but occasionally something pops up that demands spreading like a plague.
    🙂

  3. thistlelurid Says:
    May 25th, 2005 at 9:54 am

    wow………thank you for such a consummate review 🙂 …and there are enough
    of us here to collaborate on an underground safe-house chain should the
    men in dark glasses come calling at your door, so no worries!
    "It’s like My Dinner with Andre on methamphetamines." hahaha so awesome!
    <small>(seeing that youre actually honoring requests….we would also like
    to see a photo of you in a badger costume, balancing on a ball with one
    leg, juggling eggs….please?</small>)

  4. FunkyPlaid Says:
    May 30th, 2005 at 12:40 am

    Cheeky thing.
    There shall be no badger costume for you, dear Katherine. Elephant seal, maybe…
    😉

  5. angledge Says:
    May 25th, 2005 at 11:29 am

    Big Brother is reading your LJ
    You know, you think it's a joke, <a href = "http://www.livejournal.com/users/anniesj/331112.html&quot; rel="nofollow">until you read about stuff like this.
    I read Checkpoint this morning – it's intense. Jay has clearly gone over the edge with his trainable bullets & flying sawblades, but didn't someone once say that insanity is the only rational response to an insane world? Sometimes it feels like staying sane, going to work, & pretending everything is fine is the act of true insanity.
    I thought Jay had some great points about the intolerance of both sides towards dissent. He was right when he said that the anti-war activists he marched with would turn against him if he knew he was against abortion rights. It's rigid thinking of this type that has reduced the US Senate to games of brinkmanship such as the filibustering showdown so recently played out. No one's listening to anyone else anymore. No one's willing to change even one sentence of their rhetoric.
    Ben's arguments against impeaching Bush were also spot-on. I really worry that our government is going to be reduced to each side abandoning any effort to ACCOMPLISH anything & instead focusing on ways to destroy their opposition. Kind of like our foreign policy at the moment, isn't it?
    For such a short book, Checkpoint really managed to hit on a lot of edgy topics. Thanks for loaning it to me.

  6. FunkyPlaid Says:
    May 30th, 2005 at 12:47 am

    Re: Big Brother is reading your LJ
    I remember that journal entry, and it had been on my mind as I posted this. I never thought I'd see the day that I would actually be concerned about such a thing…then again, I never thought I'd ever focus so closely on such subject matter in the first place.
    Strange times beget strange behavior.
    Your observations about Checkpoint are sharp and accurate. The worst part about the book is that it ends so soon; there are so many directions in which it could go, and I would of loved to have seen Baker go off on a wild tangent, as he is wont to do.
    Coming soon to a bookstore near you:
    Checkpoint II: Electric Boogaloo.

  7. inbody Says:
    May 27th, 2005 at 8:10 pm

    Close, but not quite
    I read checkpoint this evening. It left me unsatisfied. As with most media with a similar point-of-view, I felt it would best be read by those least likely to actually read it. I admire Baker's achievement in capturing a candid conversation between two friends, however I was left feeling that the book didn't really offer much. The issues the book deals with are more viscerally conjured by simply observing the things for ourselves that Jay is acting against in the book.
    I did have the obvious thought, though, that Checkpoint would perhaps be a very effective stage production as it would have the potential to make an audience feel some of the discomfort that Ben feels.
    Thanks for the recommendation!

  8. FunkyPlaid Says:
    May 30th, 2005 at 1:02 am

    Re: Close, but not quite
    Glad that you checked it out, even though it didn't fill the gaping void in your soul. 🙂
    I wouldn't pigeonhole Baker as a liberal political writer only, and that's one of the reasons why I was so pleased to find this novella, a departure from the traditional Zinn/Vidal/Chomsky agenda, written in his traditional no-holds-barred literary style. I mean, the last thing I read of his was in a Joyce Carol Oates compilation about Gothic Horror tales – Baker had written about a Mr. Potato Head come to life!
    I don't think the book was meant to offer much, as you pointed out, but there's still a lot in it. I think it was written simply to display an extreme viewpoint of our particular political climate, which he does with pinpoint accuracy and no apologies. I liken it more to a painting or a music video, full of emotional confrontation and a clear statement on the state of our state, so to speak.
    The issues the book deals with are more viscerally conjured by simply observing the things for ourselves that Jay is acting against in the book.
    I think that Baker wanted to wave a flag of solidarity here, even if simply for his own therapy. He's not a political analyst, but if we can take anything from this book, it's that people need to express their shame, frustration, and rage at the current state of affairs. The irony of Jay's absurdist plotting lends light to a very grave intonation, and saves the commentary from being too real-world dangerous.

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