Nicholson Baker rose to fame largely on the basis of a single masterful stunt: his idiot-savantish ability to whip himself into ecstatic spasms of eggheaded poetry about the tiniest possible minutiae—fingernail clippers, shoelaces, ice-cube trays, plastic straws. He once compared the shape of a comma to “the pedals of grand pianos, mosquito larvae, paisleys, adult nostril openings, the spiraling decays of fundamental particles, the prows of gondolas, half-spent tubes of antifungal ointment, [and] falcon or airplane wings in cross section.” (Few other writers would have thought to modify “nostril openings” with “adult.”) Baker’s first novel—the slim, aggressively digressive The Mezzanine—tells the story of an ordinary man riding an escalator on his lunch break; his second, Room Temperature, tells the story of a man bottle-feeding his baby for twenty minutes. (Baker once described his ideal fiction as “a veritable infarct of narrative cloggers.”) Although his subjects have branched out a bit over time—phone sex, library science, the assassination of President Bush—the sermon Baker preaches is always the same: Too often we squander the incalculable treasure of our daily experience—the rich trivial magic of car washes and tuna sandwiches and houseplants; true living requires a rigorously hyperaware, fully conscious ethics of attention. But while Baker’s obsessive microanalyses are almost always breathtaking, they also tend to be frustratingly narrow, chronically and willfully ignorant of any sense of context or history or society. Baker, in other words, has always suffered from a serious problem of “Where’s the beef?”
His new book, Human Smoke, seeks to answer this question once and for all by tackling the biggest, rawest slab of beef in the freezer: the origin and ethics of World War II, a subject Baker has admitted to being entirely unqualified to discuss. He approached it, therefore, in a typically Bakerian way. In an effort to capture what he calls “the grain of events,” he underwent a monkish immersion in the primary sources of the thirties and forties—newspapers, diaries, memoirs, memos, speeches; his bibliography lists 384 sources—and emerged with what he considered the anecdotal pith of the era: prime ministers dancing while eating sandwiches at 2 a.m., bureaucrats issuing memos, dictators frothing, reporters reporting, flying aces committing suicide in their bathrobes. Instead of sorting and blending these nuggets into a standard history, Baker simply laid them out, discrete and uncontextualized, as a chronological series of vignettes:
At an air pageant on Long Island, Ernst Udet did amazing stunts in his red and silver Flamingo, and a fleet of U.S. Army airplanes bombed and strafed a papier-maché village. The demolished village was named “Depressionville.” It was October 8, 1933.
Human Smoke contains, by my count, 830 of these anecdotes; the longest is just under two pages, the shortest only thirteen words. (“Winston Churchill was Time magazine’s Man of the Year. It was January, 1941.”) It’s the WWII sampler platter. As the nuggets accumulate, they form an idiosyncratic mosaic history of the war.
Baker’s style is notoriously ornate— Victorian-scented belletrism, with Nabokovian phrase-density—but in Human Smoke it’s pointedly restrained. Here, his subjects verb their objects with startling directness: “The Prime Minister began thinking about the thickness of bomb casings.” “Hitler’s army invaded Russia.” “Life magazine published an article on how to tell a Japanese person from a Chinese person.” He reduces the messiest, most obscenely violent episode in the history of the world to a series of Dick-and-Jane stories. It’s a project of pragmatic recovery. Baker wants to strip away all the muffling impersonal layers of popular history—abstraction, officialese, jingoism, allegory—and to insist, instead, on human causality: these actual people, in these documented moments, taking these recorded actions. (The approach recalls Hemingway’s famous dismissal of rhetoric in A Farewell to Arms: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.”)
To shock, of course, is the nature of war books, but it’s especially the nature of Nicholson Baker’s war book, which carries an unusually heavy revisionist payload. It becomes clear quickly that Baker is no neutral curator of factoids: He’s a raging pacifist. The spirit of Gandhi hovers over Human Smoke, which implies again and again that violence—even supposedly “good” violence—always thwarts its user’s intentions, and increases suffering, and circulates evil. In Baker’s anecdotes, even the most admired politicians twist themselves into ugly hypocritical pretzels in the name of war. The book’s most controversial aspect is its portrait of Winston Churchill, who comes off as a war- mongering, anti-Semitic, alcoholic supervillain: a manipulator of the press, imprisoner of refugees, refuser of the peace, and equal- opportunity murderer who tells villainous jokes (“You and others may desire to kill women and children … My motto is ‘Business before Pleasure’ ”), denies food to a starving Europe because the Germans might use it for weapons (“The plastic materials now so largely used in the construction of aircraft are made of milk”), and dresses up mass murder with alliterative rhetoric: “We will have no truce or parley with you, or the grisly gang who work your wicked will. You do your worst—and we will do our best.” (Baker recently said that his book’s austere tone was, in part, a reaction to this rhetoric: “Churchill’s endlessly flowing eloquence temporarily turned off my adjectival spigots.”) “Bombing was, to Churchill,” Baker writes, “a form of pedagogy—a way of enlightening city dwellers as to the hellishness of remote battlefields by killing them.”
Some critics have been predictably outraged by Human Smoke, issuing code-orange alerts about the damage it will do to ignorant and impressionable readers—and not entirely without reason. The book occasionally gives off a strong whiff of Michael Moore. Baker will restate, sardonically, facts that are already powerfully implicit in his anecdotes: “Twelve million people still held to Franklin Roosevelt’s basic principle of civilization: that no man should be punished for the deed of another. Franklin D. Roosevelt was not one of them.” He’ll steer the reader toward certainty about hugely controversial historical points (e.g., that America baited Japan into attacking; that Churchill’s aggression made Hitler’s violence worse; that a workable peace might have been had, at several points, in lieu of total victory; that pacifism was the best response), all of which his unorthodox method, by its very nature, can’t honestly support, given that it denies all the traditional hallmarks of historical argument: direct comment, abstract analysis, deep engagement with the existing scholarship. And so Baker sometimes lapses into the crime he means to correct: He simplifies the narrative he’s trying to complicate, distorting the truth as badly as any pious acolyte of the Greatest Generation myth. Villainizing Churchill isn’t necessarily wrong—the numbers and statements are all a matter of public record—but in the end it’s no more subtle than lionizing him.
To dismiss Baker’s project as a failed work based on the traditional criteria of history writing, however, is to misunderstand its actual purpose and power—and also to underestimate the good sense of the average reader. No one is likely to mistake Human Smoke for a comprehensive scholarly history of the war. It’s an auto-didact’s record of his own obsessive, subjective research. It devotes generous airtime to characters who tend to get excluded from popular history (secretaries, pacifist students, journalists), excavates great lost quotes (“What is the difference between throwing 500 babies into a fire and throwing fire from aeroplanes on 500 babies? There is none”), and powerfully questions canonical events based on carefully identified sources. As in all of Baker’s work, the strength of Human Smoke comes from the defamiliarizing charge it brings to a familiar subject. Its unorthodox form allows it to capture, with brutal efficiency, the daily texture of the war—the suffering, the confusion on the ground, the strike among Viennese mail carriers from the stress of delivering too many death letters. Baker doesn’t hide his omissions or his anecdotes’ lack of context—in fact, each vignette is surrounded by generous white space, so the lacunae are a constant visible presence in the book. It’s the kind of project that encourages, rather than closes off, further reading. Its texture is deeply convincing, and a much stronger message of peace than mere argument could ever muster.
WW Déjà Vu
The contemporary resonance of ‘Human Smoke.’
A few of the anecdotes recounted in Human Smoke (the publication of which happened to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq) may feel uncomfortably familiar to modern readers.
The Congresswoman Who Spoke Her Mind:
“Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, voted against declaring war on Germany. It was April 6, 1917 …“‘I want to stand by my country,’ Rankin said. ‘But I cannot vote for war.’ … ‘I felt,’ she said later, ‘that the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war she should say it.’”
“Churchill told General Wavell to mount a general offensive in Iraq. General Wavell contested the order—there weren’t enough troops, he said, and there were other countries to consider …Churchill countermanded him, whereupon Wavell sent a warning … ‘The political repercussions will be incalculable.’” Churchill told him to stop worrying and “‘break into Baghdad, even with quite small forces,’” to install a friendly government. When the attack went badly, Churchill’s under-secretary lamented: “‘Are we really going to be beaten by Iraquis [sic]?!’ ”
“Hitler often claimed, said Roosevelt, that he had no designs on the Americas. But Roosevelt had evidence to the contrary. ‘I have in my possession a secret map made in Germany by Hitler’s government,’ he said … ‘This map makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States itself.’ … A reporter asked to see the secret German map. Roosevelt said he couldn’t show it, for fear of compromising his source. A reporter asked where the map was. Roosevelt said it was in some basket on his desk. The map did not, in fact, show Hitler’s plan to partition South America and conquer the Western Hemisphere. It showed routes in South America flown by American airplanes.… It was a British forgery.”
“I’ve always had pacifist leanings,” Nicholson Baker has declared. But he has embraced violence in one sphere: fantasy. His novel Checkpoint, published during the 2004 election, was a conversation between two friends: Jay, unbalanced misfit and obsessive blog reader, has decided that he must assassinate Bush in retaliation for the Iraq war, while Ben, liberal American history professor, offers limp arguments for peaceful protest. In the Times, Leon Wieseltier called the novel a “scummy little book”: “The radicalism of the right has hectored into being a radicalism of the left …American liberalism, in sum, may be losing its head.”
WW Déjà Vu
The contemporary resonance of ‘Human Smoke.’
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization
By Nicholson Baker.
Simon & Schuster. 566 pages. $30.