Shortly after Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 steamrolled into theaters, The Onion ran one of its funniest headlines in years: “Nation’s Liberals Suffering From Outrage Fatigue,” the parody banner read.
It’s all good and well to poke fun at people tuning out for a bit, but what would happen if someone allowed his political outrage to escalate out of control? Nicholson Baker explores one worst-case scenario in his latest novel, Checkpoint, a brief but provocative little Frisbee of a tale about political frustration.
As in Baker’s 1992 novel, Vox, the story of Checkpoint unfolds like a transcript. Two middle-age men named Ben and Jay are talking in a Washington-area hotel. A not-entirely-reformed alcoholic who is backsliding toward failure, Jay has summoned his friend Ben for a chat. He gets the ball rolling by unloading this bombshell: “I’m going to assassinate the president.”
Plenty of blockbuster movies have revolved around plots to assassinate a president, but it’s rarer for a contemporary novel to take up this plot. Don DeLillo’s Libra imagined how Kennedy’s assassin came to be; Thomas Mallon’s Henry & Clara brought up Lincoln’s assassination—but these were historical novels. Checkpoint, on the other hand, references everything from Halliburton to the odd disappearance of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
The novel’s title has a double meaning. On a literal level, it refers to a recent incident in Iraq where members of a family fleeing a war zone were shot at because they waved to soldiers as they drove up to a security checkpoint. Two young girls and their grandfather were killed in the shooting. The grandfather had worn a pinstripe suit to look more American.
“Checkpoint” also refers to the mental state one reaches after prolonged exposure to moral outrage. Jay rationalizes his decision as a kind of violent check and balance. “If you as the guy in charge allow killing to go forward, if you in fact promote killing—if you say, Go, men, launch the planes, start the bombing, shock and awe the living shit out of that ancient city—you are going to create assassins like me.”
Jay’s gripes with President George Bush are actually similar to Michael Moore’s. During his conversation with Ben, Jay begins with the war in Iraq, decrying the reported use of napalm, the death of 10,000 innocent Iraqi civilians. And then, like Moore, he snowballs this legitimate human-rights complaint into a giant catchall of gripes, roaming from Dick Cheney’s corruption to Donald Rumsfeld’s chin to the president’s trademark smirk. He even tosses in one of Moore’s most dubious claims, which was the administration’s urge to profit from an oil pipeline across Afghanistan.
This gumbo of fact and speculation will certainly make Checkpoint a controversial book—the reaction to which will no doubt eclipse its literary merits.
But the questions of craft at stake here are real, too. Is a 115-page conversation between two men a novel? Given the smaller numbers of Americans actually reading novels, will this book make a difference? Can a novel that is this timely actually last?
How to categorize Checkpoint, though, is less important than how we read it. Already the book has been grossly misinterpreted by Leon Wieseltier in The New York Times as an argument, rather than a dramatization of how political ideas can be warped by anger. It is worth noting that Wieseltier is the same editor who commissioned the attack criticism of James Wood and, more recently, Dale Peck.
The goal of Checkpoint, it seems, is to take this internal combustion process of hatred and anger and make it visible—which Baker does brilliantly. Jay’s speech begins slowly, then it meanders, then it turns frantic and finally breathless. By the novel’s conclusion, it’s as if he’s used up every molecule of oxygen in the room. At the peak of his anger, his voice comes out in bursts and squeaks, with no logic whatsoever.
Very little of what is timely during presidential elections survives, and for good reason: The arguments are dated, the decisions quickly settled. It seems possible that Baker’s book will linger on after 2004, though perhaps more as a playlet than a novel. Few American writers have captured the texture and tenor of our speech the way Baker does, and few characters in novels discuss politics anymore; it’s become a kind of no-man’s-land. Yes, it is possible that Baker’s novel could be a kind of record.
What it won’t become is a record of the facts of our time, which brings us back to The Act Itself. Anyone thinking this is somehow a prelude to an actual occurrence should read a little further. How does Jay plan to do it? For starters, he’s got smart bullets that simply need to marinate near a photograph of the target, and they’ll find their way to it. If that doesn’t work, he’s going to unleash a giant ball bearing and simply roll it down the hill and crush Bush.
With these unlikely scenarios, at least the president won’t have to worry about copycat crimes.