Assassination Porn

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2004 12:58 PM

Assassination Porn

Nicholson Baker's irate new novel.

Book cover

In 1992, Nicholson Baker became a household name with the publication of Vox, a slender erotic novel structured as a conversation between two people engaged in phone sex. The explicitness of the fantasies that Vox's two unnamed characters swapped and the bare-bones narrative progression from salutation to mutual orgasm (the latter occurring a mere two pages before the end) provoked some discussion about whether Vox was simply high-end pornography. A critical consensus emerged that it was not. The writing was too inventive and the characters were too complex. Also, it was funny. Porn isn't supposed to be funny.

Twelve years later, Baker is once again creating a stir with Checkpoint, an even-more-slender political novel, structured as a conversation between two people about the advisability of assassinating the president. Because the book is set in the present day, and because the target is identified as George W. Bush, Checkpoint is creepier and more controversial than Vox. (Make love, not war!) As in Vox, Baker uses duologue to create a powerful sense of intimacy—in this case, between two old friends. But Checkpoint's writing is less polished, its characters less complex, and its humor less prevalent (though there's some ambiguity on this last point; more in a moment). This time Baker really has created a work of pornography.

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Unsurprisingly, Checkpoint has deeply offended the right. "How far does the Bush hatred have to go before every fair-minded American says, 'Enough'?" asked Rush Limbaugh on his radio program. But most of these critics haven't read the book and therefore don't know that the would-be assassin, Jay, is shown to be unhinged—a delusional paranoiac who drifts from job to job and has little feeling for his own children. Ben, the novel's other character, a comparatively sturdy Cold War historian, tries desperately to dissuade Jay and eventually succeeds. It isn't clear that Jay represents much of a threat, since his most prized weapons turn out to be "radio-controlled flying saws," a giant boulder made of depleted uranium ("You're going to squash the president?" Ben asks), and "homing bullets," which Jay programs by "marinating" them in a box with a photograph of President Bush. The murderous rage in Checkpoint cannot and should not be mistaken for Baker's own.

I won't apologize for giving away the ending because, as with Day of the Jackal, Frederick Forsyth's thriller about an imagined attempt to assassinate Charles DeGaulle, readers will understand from the start that a successful assassination would shatter the book's very deliberate realism. In Checkpoint, that realism is deeply unnerving. George W. Bush really is the president; Daily Kos and TalkingPointsMemo, which Jay reads faithfully, really are political Web logs; and Frank Wisner, who ran the CIA's first covert action unit, really did kill himself in 1965, as Jay maintains in arguing that covert action attracts "sneaks and wackos and paranoids" and "depressives." Reading Jay's crazed rationale for killing Bush made me want to pick up the phone, tip off the FBI, and turn myself in for not notifying the feds the moment an advance copy appeared in my mailbox. Jay's violent outbursts warp an otherwise convivial bull session between two like-minded and reasonably well informed old friends. "You know what you need?" Ben asks after Jay opines that somebody ought to have killed Bush before the Iraq war. "A dog. A puppy." Jay answers: "Well, I travel a lot, so I don't think I could have a puppy. It would be nice. I worked for a roofer in Birmingham …"

As this last example demonstrates, Baker does lace Checkpoint with some humor, even if readers on the right missed it. But the question that the novel's more sympathetic readers have to ask themselves is: How much of the distancing humor is deliberate? Much of Checkpoint mimics leftist myopia so deftly that I felt sure it was meant as intentional parody. Yes, the Iraq war turned out badly. The absence of chemical and biological weapons and our failure thus far to create a stable, secular democracy makes it extremely difficult for Americans to justify the price in blood paid by coalition soldiers and by Iraqi civilians. But many Iraqis still believe their liberation from Saddam Hussein was worth the price. No honest debate can ignore that, as Jay and Ben both do throughout Checkpoint. The checkpoint of the title refers to a horrifying incident in which Americans accidentally massacred an Iraqi family:

Jay: ... Can you imagine it? You're just trying to get your family out of a war zone? Your farm's already been blasted by helicopters, and then a bunch of guys in Kevlar open fire on your kids, and you see that happen? Ho, God.

Ben: That's bad.

Jay: Liberators. Such bullshit. It's just one event. The grandfather was killed, too. You know what he had on? He was wearing a pin-striped suit so that he would look more American. Ho, man. Ho, man.

No humor in that, obviously. But surely, I thought, Baker meant us to note the unacknowledged fact that the overwhelming majority of occupation-era killings in Iraq weren't tragic accidents, like the checkpoint incident, but deliberate acts of terror committed by various groups within Iraq—mostly against Americans and those Iraqis who worked with them. You can call the American presence in Iraq a tragic and costly blunder, but you can't call it butchery. I didn't think Baker was.

But I had to revise that view after reading Baker's interview with David Gates in the Aug. 9 Newsweek:

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. As he typed, he found himself weeping.

Not much distancing irony in evidence there. In the interview, Baker refers to Jay almost affectionately as "this eccentric guy."