In the opening chapter of Barry Lopez's new novel, Resistance, expatriate art curator Owen Daniels receives an ominous letter from the "Office of Inland Security." He soon learns that his fellow travelers, scattered around the world but still in contact, have all received the same letter. All are accused of circulating "artistic or literary works created by cultures inimical to our nation's policies,'" and distracting the populace from the "salutary effect of regular habits of purchase." They are asked to present themselves for questioning and uncertain consequences, to answer for their rebellion against the cash-and-colony obsessions of the American empire.
Instead, they take their gentle subversions underground, leaving only their stories behind. "We will disrupt through witness, remembrance, and the courtship of the imagination," writes Daniels. "We will construct kites that stay aloft in the rain. We will champion what is beautiful, and so finally make our opponents irrelevant."
Lopez, winner of the National Book Award for his Arctic Dreams, gives each of Daniels' friends a chapter to tell of their resistance: the blinded Vietnam veteran who teaches himself to fold origami, asking, "What depth of experience with evil does it take before a person ceases to participate?"; the linguist who joins a caravan and finds a "bone-deep peace" in the wordless waves of the Takla Makan Desert.
The several narrators speak in a confessional style, admitting their errors and excesses and acknowledging the valid restraints of a just community. ("How much latitude could a society give an individual without threatening its own fabric?" asks an anthropologist who admits to having torn a few seams.)
Call it guerilla warfare for the humanist, these battles fought by sidestepping the machines of dominance to liberate the world with myths and songs, answering the ridiculous demands of despots with loving silence. -- Thomas Bell
By Nicholson Baker
(Alfred A. Knopf)
So my mom, who grew up in a more obedient age, is always worrying that my writing is going to get me into serious trouble. Mind you, I'm an arts writer, not a deep-cover investigative reporter, but whenever she reads something I've written that tangentially suggests someone in a position of power might be something less than a socially upstanding philanthropist with good taste and a fine physique, she's sure it's going to end me up in jail.
I don't guess I'll be sending her this story because Nicholson Baker's Counterpoint is well, let's make the TIA data miners work a little harder than a Google algorithm: This is a novella about keEhl-eNg duh pruZ-ee-dunt. Did you parse that okay? I'll translate to Pentagon-speak: It's about a man named Jay's plan to effect a domestic regime change through non-democratic means that involve radio-controlled flying saws, magic bullets that have been "marinating" in a biscuit tin with a picture of their target, and a Brazilian Mojo Hammer of Justice.
OK, so yeah, obviously Jay has gone crazy, and his old friend Ben spends most of the book trying to reeducate him into the duties of gentle hearts with strong moral convictions. Ben, who shares Jay's anger over the innocents killed in Iraq, argues that Jay's plan would make the world worse and violate the basic sanctity of life that Jay claims to be defending.
Nicholson has made a name for himself taking absurdly thin plots and writing them with such wit, insight and minute observation that they bloom into contemplations thick and heady. His first novel, The Mezzanine, followed the mind of a temp worker riding up an escalator. vox, his most popular work, tells of a single phone sex encounter. Checkpoint is no exception. The entire novella takes place in a hotel room and is written solely in dialog, like a transcript. But Ben and Jay's impassioned moral point/counterpoint deals deeply with the thoughts we're not supposed to have. In daring to seriously engage Jay's urge to kill, Baker ends up affirming the preciousness of life, of every life, even the lives of those who treat life with casual disdain. -- Bell