When I met Nicholson Baker, at last, after two years of reading and writing about him for B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, I told him that I thought his choices of subject matter, throughout his career, demonstrated an instinct to occupy the taboo. To this point in our conversation, Baker had been largely poker-faced, but there was something about this he liked so much he echoed it back to me.
“Occupy the taboo,” he said, with a boyish grin.
In teaching Vox and Checkpoint, you might begin with this: One is a love story, the other is a loath story. Or you might begin with the observation that both books were reviewed quite poorly on their initial release, yet, like saviors or martyrs, their critical crucifixion – their critifixion – served only to ensure that they would survive and continue to be discussed, years later. Or you might simply assert to your students, by way of a “hypothesis,” and perhaps with some hope that you will be able to make some persuasive arguments to this effect, that both books are actually about storytelling.
On the one hand, they’re practically identical. Vox is one-hundred-and-sixty-five pages long, and Checkpoint is somewhat thinner at one-hundred-and-fifteen pages, but they’re both quite short and the fact that they are short was held against them when they were first published: “Slim, strange and nearly plotless” and “Scummy little book,” respectively. Both are dialogue books, or mostly dialogue books, and both limit themselves to a single conversation that follows a simple Freytag triangle or pyramid or whatever clunky visual you’d like to use to represent the beginnings, the middles, and the climactic, purgative ends of stories. And the characters of both books, a man and woman in Vox, and two men in Checkpoint, have something of a cardboard quality to them – they’re not quite people – and while this was, again, used to indict the books, it should have been the first sign that neither aspired to the realism their reviewers appeared to expect.
On the other hand, while both books were backed by innovative marketing campaigns – the phone sex novel was sold wrapped in brown paper; the presidential assassination novel was initially scheduled for release on the eve of the 2004 Republican National Convention – Vox was a bestseller, while Checkpoint flopped. One is about sex, the other about death. One is a conversation that takes place only in electronic ether, the other is an actual conversation in a hotel room. One is “live,” in the sense that you read it as though you are eavesdropping in real time, the other is a document, a transcription prepared, somehow, after the fact.
Anyway, you get the idea: Vox and Checkpoint are a study in contrasts. But once you’ve read them both – and you can make your students do that – it’s hard to imagine having read either in isolation.
There’s one more thing Vox and Checkpoint have in common: if you’re going to understand them, you’re going to have to set aside prejudices and assumptions, and truly, as Goethe demands of every book we read, “yield yourself up entirely to its influence.”
And that’s not easy. As a writer, Nicholson Baker has some kind of internal divining rod for the things that “push our buttons” or “get our backs up,” or otherwise cause us to erect an emotional wall between ourselves and whatever might challenge our prejudices and assumptions. (I should not need to add that this kind of reaction is a prerequisite for censorship.) Baker’s career is consistent in this regard. Whether he’s a writing a book devoid of plot (The Mezzanine), or upending our romantic notions about the true motives of librarians (Double Fold), or contesting the fundamental rationalizations that enabled, for example, World War Two (Human Smoke – can you feel your fingers inching toward your pistol?), Baker has made a career not out of bombastic claims, I would argue, but out of a recognition that difficult truths are the kinds of truths that we can discuss only in the context of literature, which is the place we go when all other forms of human discourse fail.
So it can, and should, be said that both Vox and Checkpoint, on some level, are about freedom of speech. This is probably truer of Checkpoint than Vox, at least overtly, as threatening to kill the President of the United States is an actual restriction on the speech of United States citizens, a restriction that no one, not even Checkpoint, is clamoring to do away with it. (Incidentally, we really need an updated version of the metaphor we use for the other widely accepted restriction on speech: yelling “Fire!” in crowded theatres. It seems to me that people are more or less constantly yelling “Fire!” in the crowded theatre of the internet.) Somewhat similarly, Vox discovered, via its critical reception, that not all freedom of speech is the same, and apparently not everyone wants the kind of freedom of speech that Lenny Bruce fought and perhaps died for.
Which is interesting, because it was Harold Bloom, wasn’t it, who defined the critic’s role as making the implicit explicit? And what I’d like to suggest is that what’s meant by implicit here is similar to what Henry James meant by “indirection,” what Emily Dickinson meant by telling it “slant,” and perhaps what Zizek means by “looking awry,” though I’m guessing a bit on that last one. At any rate, if I’m onto something here, and if Bloom is too, then we might have to conclude that, according to the traditional model, explicitness is the critic’s job, not the writer’s, such that a book that indulges in a great deal of explicitness – for example, Nicholson Baker’s Vox – would find itself derided not because it’s obscene or because it goes places no one ever went before (Sade is far worse, and so, at times, is Chaucer), but because it seems to leave little left for a critic to do.
And now I think I’m sneaking up on something, because even though Vox sold like hotcakes while Checkpoint was a hot potato, there’s a similarity to even these wildly disparate reactions. No one actually read these books. And what these books require – and the reason they might actually make a great classroom pairing – is that you read them not to project the explicit onto the implicit, but just the opposite. Vox and Checkpoint require an upending of the traditional critical strategy, such that what you do as you read these books is dig for the subtle needle hiding inside the great gross haystack. You don’t tell it slant; you read it slant. You don’t look awry; you look right at it, through your rage, or your embarrassment, as the case may be.
So what happens when you read Vox and Checkpoint slantwise?
Vox is, as billed, a very dirty telephone conversation between a man and a woman that features all kinds of explicit language as they trade scenes of unlikely sexual encounters – fantasies. And it culminates in orgasms rendered on the page with unflinching exactness (“Oh! Nnnnnnnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn! Nnn!” – I very much recommend playing the Audible book for your students). Yet there’s something very unusual about Vox, something that I’ve never seen discussed in any of the reviews of the book I’ve read – and I’ve read a ton of them. It’s this: Jim and Abby are happy, happy to be having this conversation, happy to have found someone with whom they can have this kind of conversation. Why is this unusual? Because most books aren’t happy at all. There’s a good reason for this. Books need conflict, conflict means trouble, and trouble generally makes people unhappy. Measured on this scale, Vox is a story that follows the quasi-erotic exposition-rising action-climax-denouement model, but is completely lacking in conflict. In this way, it is, itself, like good sex. Vox is a book about happy people engaged in the process of being happy. Or, better, it’s about unhappy people who have just now stumbled across happiness, and who are now happily proceeding with being happy, and you sort of have to wonder what kind of person would look in at that, at two consenting adults not getting off on meanness or doing anything particularly BDSMy, and disapprove. The reaction to Vox was the reaction you might expect to a couple getting semi-naked and grinding in a public place, perhaps in view of children. But they’re not in a public place, it’s private, and reading too is a privateact, so to disapprove of this book, I think, is to announce yourself as a prude so unsatisfied by your own intimate life that you really don’t want anyone else to have a good intimate life, either. Shame on you!
And how about Checkpoint? It too is an explicit book in the sense that the would-be assassin’s plan is announced on page two, though it should be noted that the book is comedic, strange as that sounds, and that the assassin’s plan isn’t particularly realistic. It’s preposterous, in point of fact. But there’s something about how direct the book is, maybe just because the two men in question (they’re old chums) don’t have anything to hide from each other, and while they can’t be said to be happy – pretty much the opposite, really – they are being very honest because they trust one another. There’s another cathartic/orgasmic moment in Checkpoint (“HHHHHHHRRRRRRAAAAAGH!” – alas, no Audible version this time), so there’s kind of a sex parallel, but what’s maybe most interesting about it is the fact that the book is very blunt and honest about something we all know to be true: politics boils the blood, churning up murderous feelings that we’re literally prohibited from voicing publicly. Of course the two men in the book aren’t voicing anything publicly – they’re in a hotel room – but Nicholson Baker is. And even though the book is presented as a novel, it uses a real president, George W. Bush (Checkpoint was composed a scant thirty-five miles from the Bush family headquarters in Kennebunkport, Maine), and makes reference to a whole range of real world figures, websites, and incidents. Even the title refers to a particularly horrible incident at a military checkpoint in one of the warzones in which the United States was then engaged. This incident is critical to the would-be assassin’s motive – it’s the tipping point of his rage – and though it wasn’t significant enough to merit attention in domestic media outlets, I did manage to dig up a news story about it from the Sydney Morning Herald (April 2, 2003), a brief account that contained most of the details about the event, as reported in Checkpoint. All this is important to note because what it means is that Checkpoint spit across the line separating fiction and nonfiction, and I probably don’t need to mention, though I will, that if Baker had used a fictional president to go along with his fictional assassin no one would have called the book an “odd, abortive… desperately ramblingly little playlet.”
And that begins to bring us around, finally, to what these books have to do with storytelling, to what is so essential about them that I think you should risk your career to teach them.
For Vox, this is pretty straightforward – and that’s why readers who are more accustomed to slantedness will have a hard time recognizing it. It’s a story about two people telling stories. There are periods of the typical ping-pongy exchange of human conversation – though by this I don’t mean that Baker lacks a talent for chat; he’s quite good at it – and these exchanges lead to periods in which either of the two characters launch into protracted storytelling speeches. In this, the book echoes 1) traditional storytelling, in which periods of expositional summary of large swaths of time are interrupted by real-time scenes that are the meat of the tale; and 2) pornography, which zigzags between throwaway plots and intricately recorded sex scenes. You can expect students to be either shocked by Vox (they may actually text their parents in class; expect a call from your dean), or enthralled by it, but either way they will have hard time setting aside their initial emotional and physiological reactions to the book to process it intellectually. But once you slow them down, and that’s your job, they’ll see that the man and the woman in the book actually pay a good deal of attention to how they tell their stories, to the kinds of details that make for evocative images and actions. Even more important, each of them is highly attentive to their audience: their counterpart. Both listen carefully to the other for what excites them, and then they employ these details to create scenes or interludes that will tickle their listener in just the right way. In this, Vox demonstrates and embodies one of the most difficult lessons to convey to students: stories are not produced for the storyteller, not for some purgative release or authorial catharsis. Rather, the story enables the readerto achieve any or all of these things. A book is for its reader. (And what this means – because reading has long been thought to be quite similar to sex – is that giving Vox a really good read will make its reader both a better reader, and a better lover. Wouldn’t it be nice to see something like that wind up on your student evaluation forms?)
And that’s pretty much what happens in Checkpoint too, though Checkpoint is not an exchange of narrative scenes. In fact, it may be that Vox is more like a novel, and Checkpoint more like a short story in that it builds toward a single critical moment, rather than a series of them.
The nature of Checkpoint’s critical moment falls in line with Vox. For almost one hundred rapid fire pages the two men have been bantering and debating and mulling an attempted assassination, and for the most part this has amounted to an argument in which the would-be assassin attempts to convince his buddy to go along with his childish design. The buddy battles back, arguing that even if the plan succeeded it would create only more woe in the world. By the end, the book actually makes the case for pacifism, and hence strives toward another difficult truth: Even pacifists occasionally contend with reflexive murderous impulses.
How the book approaches its climax is critical to understanding what it has to say about storytelling. The would-be assassin’s buddy realizes that argument isn’t getting him anywhere. Instead, he must allow an outlet for the assassin’s rage: and this comes in the form of a scene, a story. He encourages the assassin to act out his rage in a pantomime bludgeoning of the president he would like to do away with, a theatrical king-murder. It is by acting out the rage, in a story, that the would-be assassin’s murderous impulse is exhausted. It is telling the story of the assassination that prevents the actual assassination – and hence Checkpoint is an “assassination fantasy” only to the extent that engaging in fantasy is a way in which we purge emotions, rage and hate, that if left unexpressed might well result in hateful acts that are not fantastic at all. This, of course, is a somewhat watered down version of what Aristotle said about the effects of music at the end of his Poetics, and to that I would add the humble observation that Nicholson Baker, before becoming a writer of wild, cathartic books, studied orchestral composition and played fourth chair bassoon with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.
I was once in an English department faculty meeting – the horror, the horror! – when the agenda called on us to contend with some loosely organized parental opposition to a book, The Handmaid’s Tale, that our department had chosen for that year’s university-wide common text. Inexplicably, a few parents objected to the book’s language and some of its scenes (don’t ask – I just said it was inexplicable…), and they sent some emails to the dean, and the dean sent some emails to us, and there wound up being some op-eds published in newspapers, and the episode was discussed on some local radio shows as well. All of this happened, of course, during the school library’s “Banned Books Week,” and in discussing the controversy in our faculty meeting my colleagues began to inch toward the decision to take greater care in the future to ensure that our choices for common texts did not ruffle feathers. There were arguments made about picking your fights carefully, and I found myself alone in believing, and then stating aloud, that the kerfuffle we had set off was actually a good thing. Yes, people were arguing, I said, but they were arguing about books, and in a world that has grown even more vapid since Alfred Kazin worried over “the growing assumption that literature cannot affect our future,” what we needed, quite desperately, was for books to demonstrate that they could still matter, that they could steer the conversation and not simply appeal to the dulled emotions of people who simply wanted to relax. Books should sometimes arouse us. And sometimes books should enrage us.
“Books should court controversy,” I said, to that mostly silent assemblage of tenured professors, the would-be defenders of literature. The room was quiet until a woman tipped her head back to speak down her nose.
“Well, okay – but you get to answer all the emails.”
I would have. I would have happily answered all the emails, because that’s one of the ways in which a teacher of literature defends books: by teaching people how to understand them. But I didn’t get the chance, because the department decided to take the safe course. The common text the following year was a very safe book about white urban poverty, by a one-time author who wasn’t very talented and had been recruited by an editor to produce that a book that otherwise might never have been written. In other words, it was a bad book, but it was a teachable book. Nicholson Baker’s Vox and Checkpoint are just the opposite: unteachable, but excellent. And it is precisely because they are unteachable books that, if you have the vinegar to put them on your syllabus, you’ll wind up doing just that: teaching.
J.C. Hallman is the author of a number of books, and the editor of The Story About the Story Series from Tin House Books. His most recent book, B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, is about the work of Nicholson Baker.
He’ll be reading and In Conversation with Mary Szybist on April 3, at 7:30, at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside Street.