An Open Letter to Nicholson Baker
Or, a Counterpoint to Checkpoint
Dear Mr. Baker,
I've long been a fan of your work, of your magnanimous compulsion to study the detritus of millennial life. With your most recent real novel, A Box of Matches, you finally made the connection between minutia and mortality. I had begun to believe that you were about to turn your thoughtfulness to a more generous study of the human condition. Now you've gone and put out Checkpoint.
Oh, God, Checkpoint. A 115-page discussion between two men about whether one of them should assassinate George W. Bush. This is a bad book, Mr. Baker. It reads like limp community theater, like a garage punk band's heartfelt attempt to be political by recording a song against the testing of cosmetics on animals. Any book that can refer to the current American situation thusly: "It's total tripe, it's forcemeat--it's BAD SAUSAGE, man..." or speak of a protest as such: "We just oozed, man, we were like a huge amoeba of dissent..." or speak in defense of capitalism with: "The shop windows in New York City--we can be proud of those, can't we?" clearly does not respect either its characters or its readers.
My complaint goes beyond poor writing. You're angry, Mr. Baker, and believe me, so am I. This country has done nothing but bitterly disappoint me since Florida and the Supreme Court fucked it up for the rest of us. But with your sputtering, ugly (yet eminently affordable) novella, you've entered into a disturbing trend. It's impossible to walk into a bookstore these days and not be confronted with a display of books about Bush, each with its own embarrassing photo of W. mugging, smirking, and blanking. Most of these books contain useful information about why reelecting Bush isn't a good idea. Your book, however, along with dozens of others (The Three Little Pigs Buy the White House, a book that would appeal to subliterate children, being a particular irritant) are contributing to what I think of as the Branding of Bush. By quickie-publishing your Bush = Dr. Evil diatribe, you're contributing to the caricature of a man who is, quite simply, too dangerous to be turned into a cartoon mustache-twirler.
Politics and fiction, it is true, frequently wake up in the same bed after raucous parties. See Philip Roth's Our Gang, or Joe Klein's underappreciated Primary Colors. The difference between their books and Checkpoint, Mr. Baker, is that Roth never forgot that, at heart, Nixon was a hateful wolverine of a man, but a man, and that Klein knew that Clinton basically wanted to do good.
Today's popular information-free anti-Bush screeds, including your own, cause consumers (I can't use the word "readers") to laugh at the president, to shake their heads at our situation, but they don't perform the most important function that political books should perform in these times: disseminate facts about why reelecting W. is a dangerous, harmful thing. The cartoon violence in your book may incite a handful of formerly apathetic undecideds to go to the polls, but mainly what books like this do is foster the pernicious idea that, if this administration gets another four years in office, at least there'll be a lot more opportunities to laugh.
Speaking as someone who makes a living working with books and reads a disgusting amount in his downtime, and specifically speaking as someone who has read most of the books dealing with Presidents Nixon, Johnson, and Clinton (and a smattering of Kennedy books besides), I can say that this event, this wave you're riding, swells beyond Watergate rage and blowjob indignation and crashes into the shores of senseless, cash-grabbing, truth-obscuring hysteria.
By slamming this book on your publisher's desk, Mr. Baker, by putting your name on this giggly smear of a conversation between two dunderheads (albeit ridiculously literate dunderheads who reference the Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt, but here we step back into bad-book territory) you are reacting with outrage. We're dealing with the most terrifying man on the planet, and though laughter and anger are always acceptable reactions on editorial pages and in protests and on talk radio and in private conversation, good books rise above that. I can't help but feel that the most thoughtful American writer has, in disgust, lost his most charming, useful trait--his thoughtfulness--and to say that this makes me tremendously sad would be a gross understatement.