Politics vs. the Catalpa Tree: Checkpoint by Nicholson Baker

Checkpoint, by Nicholson Baker, New York: Knopf, 115 pages, $15.95

The resounding Republican victory left legions of Bush-haters in manic disbelief, with trembling fistfuls of perfectly good hair. The voters, naturally, have come under fire. There is talk of exodus to Canada. Under such conditions one can easily imagine some would-be Blue State Czolgosz thumbing through Nicholson Baker’s new novella, Checkpoint, nodding, dreaming filthy dreams of execucide.

Bush’s reëlection may drive Nicholson Baker to put his head through a wall, but it’s the best thing that could happen to his sales. Checkpoint has sold poorly so far because it’s a mediocre book. Nevertheless, Baker is one of the best writers of his generation, celebrated for his crystalline exaltations of the mundane and his pioneering exploration of neglected masturbatory possibilities. Although it is, by Baker’s usual standards, a middling production, Checkpoint did occasion something of a second-order news event as critics and commentators from across the notional left-right spectrum rose to condemn it for immorality, bad taste, or both. Checkpoint is centrally occupied with volcanic outrage over the Iraq war and the crazed desire to murder George W. Bush, and therefore makes up in controversy what it lacks in quality.

Checkpoint poses as the transcript of a taped conversation between an unhinged left-wing conspiracy theorist named Jay and his old friend, Ben, an amateur photographer and commonplace, pusillanimous, middle-aged subscriber to (one imagines) The Utne Reader. Jay has called Ben to his room in a hotel near the White House where they commiserate about the evil of Bush and his advisors (“these rusted hulks, these zombies”), the raw, outrageous injustice of the war in Iraq, and Jay’s plan to murder the president with wacky imaginary weapons (flying saw blades; uranium boulder; homing bullets “marinated” in a box with a picture of president; specially brainwashed scorpion for Cheney; a hammer).

Ben, it turns out, largely agrees with Jay on the facts, and he assents to the preliminary moral verdict: Bush is corrupt; his administration is criminal; he is tantamount to a murderer. But Ben dissents on the ultimate verdict: justice does not demand that Bush be translated from high office to a yet higher sphere. The difference between the two men, as trifling as they seem in ideological terms, is the subject of the book. How, Baker asks, may we remain sane in a world of intolerable cruelty, injustice, and corruption? Kill the president? No.

The answer, and it is a good answer: get a camera.

Baker’s critics perhaps felt free to flout the usual standards of criticism and indulge in daft moralizing because Checkpoint itself seems to be a daftly moralistic book. Tim Noah called it “a work of pornography.” In a huffy, matronly review, Leon Wieseltier called it a “scummy little book.” Rush Limbaugh said . . . well, he didn’t like it. But it is less daftly moralistic than it first appears, as it is in many ways an indictment of the deforming effects of the hyper-heightened moral sensibility it seems to exemplify.

Checkpoint makes plain that Jay, Baker’s Bush-loathing nutcase, is in fact a nutcase. One cannot be like Jay without fraying the delicate threads in the weave of a decent life. Jay himself recognizes that he has paid a dear price for his compulsive over-politicization. Speaking of his ex-wife, he says:

I just wore Lila out. You know? With me, everything’s political. I mean, she’s political too, but not as much . . . I’ve made a bollix of my life, that’s for sure.

Jay cannot find the safety on his hair-trigger sense of injustice, and so cannot fail to wreak collateral damage on his loved ones, leaving him perpetually outraged and alone. Not a ringing endorsement.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the raving Jay does often speak for Baker, who has admitted to obsession over the war. As David Gates wrote in Newsweek:

“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.

If one is familiar with Baker’s autobiographical writings, one can detect a lot of Baker in Jay.(Compare to the above: “Jay: I’d been reading Daily Kos and the Agonist, Talking Points Memo, checking Google News twenty times a day.”) All the same, he is embarrassed by Jay, which should be no surprise. It is Baker’s peculiar form of generosity to share with us his awkward relation to himself, as he does in Vox and The Fermata, where he frankly shares, not wholly unashamed, his uncomfortably weird sexual imagination, or in U and I, where he explores in clinical detail his ridiculously vain obsession with John Updike.

Here, in Checkpoint, Baker lay bare his moral obsessiveness and political crankery for our discomfiting inspection. He does his best, through Ben, to talk himself down, to convince himself that justice–politics–does not exhaust goodness. Baker appears to be trying to convince himself (or some shade of himself) that the life of aesthetic engagement, the life of the novelist, is not an irresponsible, trivializing evasion of the supreme moral imperative. Or, rather less grandly, that irresponsible, trivializing evasion through art is less bad than killing the President.

Much of Checkpoint bounces back and forth between talk of murder and photography. Ben relates to Jay his new interest in expensive, large format camera equipment, and suggests it as an alternative to homicidal obsession.

Jay:     . . . I’m going to kill the fucker!
Ben:    No you’re not.
Jay:     Penisfucker!
Ben:    Jay, relax.
Jay:     Why should I relax? Jiminy Cricket. Anyway, so
you bought a camera, did you. How diverting. . . .


Ben:     But my suggestion is, get yourself
a camera. . . .

Jay:     I thought film was dead.
Ben:    It’s dying, but it’s not dead. The larger formats
still hold more
detail. Look, my friend, look. Okay, they used napalm. That’s very
    I agree. Shooting the head of state is not a

Jay is not easily placated, having developed a moral sensitivity to general suffering that would make Peter Singer proud. It is indeed hard to resist Jay’s outrage when he describes the horrific episode from which Checkpoint takes its title. A family in a Land Rover comes to an Army checkpoint, attempting to flee the war zone. Somebody in the car waves, and the soldiers think the wave indicates something it does not and opens fire
on the family.

Jay:     . . . and so there was this huge blast of fire, and one of the women in the car, the mother, she said, “I saw the–” Sorry.
Ben:     It’s okay.
Jay:     She said, “I saw the heads–” Pull myself together.
Ben:     It’s all right.
Jay:     She said, “I saw the heads of my two little girls come off.” That’s what she fucking said. I’m not kidding you, man. “My two little girls.” That’s what she fucking said. 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 he would look more American. Ho, man. Ho, man. And that creep, that fucking Texas punk, who can’t even talk, with his drugged-out eyes, he brought us to this point, to this war, and for nothing, for not one red fucking thing.

Obviously Jay’s admirable sympathy is not idle fellow feeling. It works a path through Jay’s implicit theory of just war and just retribution. But he fails to recognize a difference in rational status between the fact of his feeling and the assertion of his judgment. He does not question that that one might not really follow from the other. Jay takes his conclusion to follow from a kind of inexorable machinery of moral-psychological inference.

Jay:     So then the desire for justice starts moving through me. It’s like a huge paddlewheel. It churns up all this foam and fury. VENGEANCE.

It is perhaps Ben’s failure to question the transition to “VENGEANCE” that led Tim Noah to complain, strangely, that the conversation between Jay and Ben “isn’t a debate at all,” as if it should be. Ben doesn’t disagree with Jay’s moral logic. Rather, he exhorts Jay to stop fixating on the sorts of thing that set in motion the paddlewheel of justice.

Ben suggests, unhelpfully, copying a book word for word. Mainly, he sticks to the remedy of aesthetic engagement. He notes, for instance, that the Dutch masters were surrounded by cockroaches.

Ben:     . . . The painters were doing the things they could do, never mind the pests–the pests were bracketed off. They didn’t impinge. The painters looked at the trees. That’s what you should do.

Looking at the trees in the right sort of way calls up a different kind of emotional logic. Ben walks Jay through the experience of looking at the world through a viewfinder:

Ben:     . . . You might see, oh, I don’t know, a nuthatch on a fence. You think, take the picture? No, no. There’s somebody’s cat sniffing a blade of grass. Take the picture? No, no. You move on. A twisted piece of wire on the ground. Yes? No, no. You see what’s happening?
Jay:     I’m not sure I do.
Ben:     What’s happening is that the weight of the camera in your hand–and remember, it’s a heavy camera–the holding of it is changing the way you look at everything. You look up at the buildings, the stonework up there–ah, and then you see the trees . . .

Ben goes on to describe the sublimity of photographing a catalpa tree and its “incredible explosion of black twigs reaching in every direction.”

Ben:     . . . I knew I had that catalpa in the bag. I knew its secrets. Yet there it was still out in the street for everyone to enjoy. So who cares about George W.? He’s irrelevant. He’s irrelevant. You see?

Jay finally relents, settling for an attack with a hammer on a photograph of Bush, an act of minor aggression that may have a similar tonic effect on millions of disaffected Kerry voters.

So Ben’s strategy is a success with Jay. Baker’s novella, however, leaves the reader with an aftertaste of failure. Checkpoint sputters to an end (they smash the picture, press “Stop” on the tape recorder, and, we imagine, just leave) because one senses that Baker has not really satisfied himself that it’s okay to become one with catalpa trees, or to rhapsodize about the geometry of milk cartons, as he does to wonderful effect in The Mezzanine, while our government blows innocent kids to bloody pieces in an unjust war. We can, like the Dutch Masters ignoring the cockroaches, just “bracket” it all off. But once one has tasted sublime moral outrage, this has to seem like woeful retreat.

Baker is, as always, embarrassed about his obsessiveness. He realizes that it is insane to ask that we go forward deranged by our moral horror until the last knot of injustice is undone. And so he saves Jay from his insanity. Yet he is embarrassed, too, by the aesthetic remedy, by the fact that it’s the best he can manage.

But it is the best he can manage, especially given the corner he has painted himself into with the completeness of Jay and Ben’s agreement. However, Baker may be showing us something worth seeing. It is, perhaps, our minimal moral obligation to be at least slightly abashed by our evasion of total moral engagement, although we really must avoid it. Morals, and politics especially, do not reign supreme over life. We may, if we choose, cultivate the beautiful, or devote ourselves to the pleasures of discovery. But we may not do so blithely. Life is a web of awful tradeoffs; there is no escape from regret, or shame.

The lesson, then, for those millions with a visceral antipathy to Bush, and a horror of another four Bush years, is just to set politics aside, to look away, to look to the trees–every once in a while at least, for balance–and accept that even if this is a shameful way to live, it is the best way to live.

Checkpoint is not a great book, but it’s not bad advice.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center