In form, Human Smoke is unique. Nicholson Baker seeks to tell the story of the origins of World War II through a chronological sequence of several hundred vignettes, as if one were to screen Gone with the Wind through a series of uncaptioned snapshots. Yet however impressionistic Baker’s technique may seem, he is pursuing an ambitious and sweeping reinterpretation of his subject: He evidently regards the “good war” as bad, a colossal mistake. In other words, Baker is tilting against the most deeply settled and ardently embraced piece of conventional wisdom in the current armory of American myth. His prime targets are Prime Minister Winston Churchill, perhaps the most highly touted figure of the past century, and, to a lesser extent, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, though Baker has not forgotten to provide a portrait of Hitler as incomparably worse than either. His heroes are Mohandas K. Gandhi and an assortment of American Quakers and other pacifists who opposed the war—people of whom most readers will be hearing for the first time.
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