No smoking gun

In this account of WWII's origins, Western powers emerge as no less anti-Semitic than Nazis.

Nicholson Baker 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nicholson Baker 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization By Nicholson Baker Simon & Schuster 566 pages; $30 In the build-up to the Iraq War, it was standard for neocons to liken critics of military action to the Nazi appeasers of 1930s England. The analogy between Iraq and Hitler's Germany was clearly absurd, but the notion that World War II was a "good war" went unquestioned. It sits at the foundation of America's self-image as the bastion of the free world. But in Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, American novelist Nicholson Baker calls the necessity of World War II into question. He assembles a chronological montage of several hundred vignettes, culled from newspapers, diaries, memoirs and speeches from the years leading up to 1942 when, as the book argues, civilization collapsed. In this fragmentary account of the war's origins, the Western powers emerge as no less bloodthirsty and anti-Semitic than the Nazis. The isolated snippets of information are presented without any context, so it's only from our pre-existing knowledge of the war that we see the Allies as the force of good. Human Smoke has become a best-seller in the US and drawn high praise from the likes of Mark Kurlansky, Colm Toibin and Simon Winchester. But it has been savaged in the conservative press as "profoundly dangerous" (London Evening Standard) and "not just a stupid book, but a scary one" (New York Sun). World War II is a surprising topic for an author predominantly known for short, plotless novels of minutiae observation. His debut novel, The Mezzanine (1988), follows in 133 pages of microscopic detail the thoughts of an office worker riding the escalator to work. In subsequent novels, such as Room Temperature (1990) and A Box of Matches (2003), Baker further established himself as an elegist of everyday objects - paper towels, earplugs, pillows, milk cartons and peanut butter jars - with a knack for evoking inconspicuous pleasures like the feeling of writing on an eraser with a ballpoint pen. Human Smoke is an attempt to resurrect forgotten pacifist voices - "to rescue from obscurity some of the people from before the Second World War who were trying to help." The book suggests that Franklin D. Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance and obstructed efforts to raise immigration quotas for Jewish refugees. It finds Roosevelt in his student years agitating for a Jewish quota at Harvard after noticing "that Jews made up one-third of the freshman class." The book shows that the effect of Britain declaring war was to cut off Jewish escape routes. Baker is baffled that Human Smoke has been widely read as implying a moral equivalence between the Germans and the Allies. "There's no hope that Hitler is going to be a good person. I'm hard on Churchill and Roosevelt because you want the defenders against that kind of person to be people you really admire," he says from his farmhouse in Maine. The book has drawn criticism for relying on newspaper articles rather than secondary sources written with the accuracy of hindsight. But Baker thinks historians sometimes pasteurize events. "By reading the newspapers and the Air Ministry reports, one gets a very different flavor for the intensity of the British effort to create havoc in Germany very, very early on." Baker suggests that if Britain had accepted Hitler's offer of a truce in 1939, its borders could have opened up to the Jews and allowed them to escape. "If then Hitler did something that was intolerable, we could always have begun the killing again." He speculates that an armistice might have led to Hitler's downfall. "Hitler's obvious instability, apparent to the people around him, might have been his undoing. Only in a peaceful situation would the support that a nation gives to a wartime leader be removed. He had a tremor. He was obviously paranoid and sick. He would not have lived very long." Baker dedicates the book to American pacifists, writing: "They failed, but they were right." But he resists identifying as a pacifist. "I'm still figuring it all out. The book is not a polemic. I'm not yet at that point. A lot of what's making people angry is not the fact that I have an outlook but that some of the quotations from people like Churchill are really troubling." BAKER IS an unlikely controversialist. Softly spoken and hesitant, his speech meanders and trails off. He qualifies and retracts remarks. He anxiously breaks off long answers to check his interlocutor is still on the line. Interviews, he admits, give him insomnia. None of this suggests that Baker isn't a genius. Intellect is often accompanied by awkwardness. A burly man of six-foot-four, with a snowy mane of facial hair veiling psoriatic skin, Baker is the image of the eccentric boffin, the ill-at-ease oddball. In U and I (1991), Baker's memoir about his hero-worship of John Updike ("U"), the author hints at how it's possible to be both provocative and meek: "When the excessively shy force themselves to be forward, they are frequently surprisingly unsubtle and overdirect, even rude." Updike praised U and I in an anonymous review in The New Yorker and later posted him a book with a dedication thanking Baker for making him famous. As a teenager, Baker wanted to compose music rather than words. A passionate bassoonist, he aspired to rescue American music from its then-fashionable atonality. But he had little musical talent, while writing came so easily that he didn't conceive of it as a career. At 24, he sold two essays to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly but, lacking further inspiration, spent his 20s working variously as an oil analyst on Wall Street, a typist and a technical writer for a data-communications company. He was then a committed neocon who subscribed to the hard-right Commentary magazine. "I liked being at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy because I got to observe people. And I loved riding the escalator to work." At 30, he scrimped to take six months off and write The Mezzanine, which won fame for its experimental use of footnotes. "That was the liberating thing - realizing that I had a lot to say and that I didn't have to put everything in the main paragraph." His next novel, Room Temperature (1990), transplanted the finicky prose of The Mezzanine to a domestic setting, spanning the 20 minutes it takes the narrator to bottle-feed his baby. Despite his fastidious books, Baker is the opposite of an obsessive-compulsive personality. "People sometimes say, 'Boy, I would love to see your sock drawer!' They're not even joined, not even matched!" But nor does Baker see his writing as pedantic. "We're all just living our lives and making up little theories. If you want to write about a very large subject like why life is worth living, then you need specifics - how the light shines on objects or a broken shoelace is prepared." WITH HIS best-selling third novel, Vox (1992), Baker trained his meticulous eye on phone sex, alienating some of his former cult audience who saw the turn to smut as opportunistic. But Baker says telephonic eroticism was titillating for purely literary reasons, since as a novelist "you have to have characters speaking, and here they can be having sex and a conversation at the same time." Sales rose further in 1997 when it came to light that Monica Lewinsky gave Vox to Bill Clinton. Though flattered Lewinsky thought her paramour would appreciate the novel, Baker was angered by the subpoena that forced bookstores to surrender her purchase records. "I don't think that the United States should have been looking into Monica Lewinsky's buying habits." Those perturbed by the sleaziness of Vox were dismayed by Baker's pornographic follow-up, The Fermata (1994), about an office temp who can freeze time and undress his unconscious female colleagues. "Whatever was intended, it is a repellent book," wrote Victoria Glendinning. "Good-bye Nicholson Baker, good-bye for ever." Baker insists that The Fermata was not a cynical bid for sales but merely an extension of his interest in time. "I like to go down into time - via footnotes in The Mezzanine, or the time-stop in The Fermata, or the tiny incidents in Human Smoke where you go down into a particular moment and linger there." The Fermata ended Baker's dalliance with sex, but he returned to controversy with Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper (2001), this time earning the ire of librarians rather than feminists. Baker exposed how libraries, enthralled by microfilming and digital technology, were reformatting old newspapers while junking the original stock. "If you've got the next to last copy of something, you don't cut the binding off and take little 35 mm. pictures of it and then throw it away!" Baker alleges that librarians were deceiving the public into believing that the paper was disintegrating with age. "I was outraged at the perversion of language that was used to justify these mass microfilming and dumping operations." In 1999, when Baker learned that the British Library was getting rid of its post-1870 newspapers, he founded the non-profit American Newspaper Repository, purchasing more than 20 tons of American newspapers and storing them in a mill building near his home. He slept better after Duke University agreed to relieve him of the collection in 2004. "I was a private individual in charge of a single remaining copy of these things that are extraordinarily important to American history!" His spat with librarians, which prompted a counterattack by archivist Richard J. Cox entitled Vandals in the Stacks?, was mild compared to the invective sparked by Checkpoint (2004). The novella presents a dialogue in a Washington hotel room between two friends debating the case for assassinating George W. Bush. Baker sighs at the idea that he was presenting a moral case for murder, pointing out that the would-be assassin, Jay, is a mentally unstable no-hoper. "Assassination is always a disaster. The difficulty of the book was to come up with a believable character who would talk this guy out of that." But many of Jay's views are disturbingly rational. "We lost the Second World War," Jay says, anticipating Human Smoke. "It was the beginning of the end." Baker wrote the first draft of Checkpoint in April 2004, sometimes while crying, as the American forces laid siege to Falluja. But he feels sympathy, and not hatred, for the 43rd president. "There's a fundamental out-of-his-depthness there that neutralizes the feeling that this is the man who's responsible for the deaths of innumerable innocent people." For all Baker's talk about the demise of civilization, he's surprisingly forgiving of humanity. "You couldn't have cities with all their elaborate systems of provisioning and waste disposal and incredible buildings if there weren't these large periods in which most people acted in a decent way - if we weren't fundamentally altruistic."