L.B.: Nero’s fiddle

Left Behind, pp. 71-73

Two things happen over these few page of the book. The surface-level thing is that Buck Williams talks to a customer service agent in the airline club and she helps him to charter a private flight to New York City.

Suddenly it was Buck's turn at the counter. He gathered up his extension cord and thanked the young woman for bearing with him. "Sorry about that," he said, pausing briefly for forgiveness that was not forthcoming. "It's just that today, of all days, well, you understand."

Apparently she did not understand. She'd had a rough day, too. She looked at him tolerantly and said, "What can I not do for you?"

"Oh, you mean because I did not do something you asked?"

"No," she said. "I'm saying that to everybody. It's my little joke because there's really nothing I can do for anybody. No flights are scheduled today. The airport is going to close any minute. …"

Both Buck and the woman at the PanCon counter eventually recover their cheer and their charm and wind up having a fairly friendly conversation that results in the woman helping Buck find a charter pilot.

To appreciate the other dynamic at work in these pages, though, we need to step back and reconsider the backdrop for this flirty exchange of banter.

Taken in isolation, this is an unremarkable bit of conversation. The airport is completely shut down, so both Buck and the woman are a bit cross, a bit wearied by the inconvenience and the extra work that this shutdown entails for them. Yet despite this inconvenience, each is able to summon enough pluck to be civil and even cheerful. We've all faced unavoidable travel delays and we can all relate to how frustrating they can be.

The good cheer demonstrated by Buck and the PanCon woman might be seen as exemplary if the airport's paralysis were the result of a freak snowstorm, or a power outage, or a computer glitch. Their glib, these-things-happen, whatchagonnado? playfulness might constitute a healthy attitude in such a situation.

But that's not what's going on here. That's not why Buck and the PanCon woman are having a "rough day."

The airport is shutting down, to their inconvenience, because of a fatal plane crash. That alone makes their conversation seem inappropriate and self-centered. That alone should be enough to cause the next person in line to interrupt with something like, "Gee, I'm sorry you're having such a rough day and this is all so inconvenient for you, but think of that poor bastard who crashed his Piper Cub out there on the runway. Think of his family and how they must feel …"

But the tragedy shutting down the airport doesn't involve just the death of one person in a small plane. It involves dozens of crashes on the runway. Dozens of crashes of giant passenger planes carrying hundreds of people. The death toll there at O'Hare could easily surpass 1,000. And, by the way, the same thing has happened at every airport, everywhere in the world. Tens of thousands are dead. Thousands more are injured, many of them still lying, untended, on the runways outside the windows of the PanCon Club where Buck and the woman are chatting.

Oh yes, and the children are gone. Everyone's children. All of them. Just … gone. Without explanation.

That's the background here. That's the setting that LaHaye and Jenkins have created. It's one of the most awful and awesome panoramas of human suffering ever imagined in a work of fiction. But the audacity of the wholesale suffering that L&J imagine is dwarfed by the greater audacity of their wholly disregarding the very scenario they have presented. The authors and their protagonists seem wholly unperturbed by all of this death and destruction, save in how it presents a logistical inconvenience and cramps the travel plans of our heroes.

Given this context, Buck and the PanCon woman cannot be described as merely playfully glib. Their glibness — their self-centered obsession with their own inconvenience — is monstrous, psychopathic.

I wish I could read this as a sly, intentional message of the book. I wish L&J were here trying to convey that our left-behind, and therefore unredeemed, protagonists are unreliable narrators whose unregenerate, sinful natures make them wholly incapable of basic human empathy or sympathy and the instinctive desire to help in time of tragedy.

But there's no indication that this is what's going on. Just as we are intended to believe that, despite his profoundly dense incuriosity, Buck Williams is the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time –

"I wanted to get into journalism," the woman tells Buck. "I studied it in college."

"If you really want to be a journalist," he does not say in reply, "then why are you sitting here behind a desk that might as well be closed instead of getting your butt out there, on the other side of that window, where the biggest story in human history is unfolding even as we speak?" He does not say this because it never occurs to him.

– Likewise, despite his utter lack of courage and his unwillingness to help others in crisis, we are intended to believe that Buck is a good guy and a genuinely noble protagonist.

  • Peatey

    Egads, was there even an editor assigned by the publisher?

  • Peatey

    Egads, was there even an editor assigned by the publisher?

  • Kenneth Fair

    Did L&J not have an editor? Because if they did, that person needs to be fired. This book needs more than just a theological blue pencil. Let’s look at some of the bad writing here:
    He gathered up his extension cord and thanked the young woman for bearing with him. Why are we told that he’s thanking the woman? Isn’t what they’re trying to convey expressed by “Sorry about that” in the next sentence?
    “Sorry about that,” he said, pausing briefly for forgiveness that was not forthcoming. “It’s just that today, of all days, well, you understand.” This transition is awkward. Instead: “Sorry about that,” he said. When she did not forgive him, he continued, “It’s just that today, of all days, well, you understand.”
    Apparently she did not understand. She’d had a rough day, too. Whose point of view are we tracking? Buck’s, right? Then how do we know she’d had a rough day? Why not express this through her words and actions?
    She looked at him tolerantly How do you look at someone “tolerantly”? Please tell me exactly what that expression looks like. Why not just say, The woman behind the counter sighed. I know what that is.
    “Oh, you mean because I did not do something you asked?” Does anyone talk like this? Read this sentence aloud. It just doesn’t sound right, does it? It should be something more like: “Huh? Oh, I see, because I didn’t do what you wanted?”

  • lightning

    Good literature directs your thoughts and feelings in the direction the author wants. In bad literature, the author tells you what to think and how to feel.
    It’s pretty obvious which one LB is.

  • David

    Rapture enthusiasists tend to focus on a simplistic good-people-saved/bad-people-punished reading of Scripture. It raises to many difficult questions about God and judgement if you think of any of those ‘left behind’ as actual, three-dimensional human beings.

  • Raymond

    Never ascribe to malice what can be explained by bad writing. Besides the inelegant language, Jenkins & LaHaye are particular duds when it comes to character motivation. Buck and the lady at the counter aren’t engaged in realistic dialogue because of a complete inability on the authors’ part to get inside their characters’ heads. This is trite, badly conceived stuff, but not really guilty of any moral depravity.

  • R. Mildred

    All comments about suckiness of writing in LB should direct their attention to the 21 Days post in the LB archives.
    Saying that, the exchange shows a complete lack of understanding of the basic physics and experience of somebody working behind a counter that deals with the public.
    First off, there wouldn’t have been what normal people call a cue forming at the counter after the first person in the cue is told that there is nothing the woman can do, presumably loud enough for the second and third people in the cue to hear this and rush forward giving suggestions and offers of money in exchange for information or services. People behind them would have seen and heard all this happen and would then move forward to find out what was happening before they in turn start bidding for the service lady’s attention and help. Even if there was merely a plane crash at the airport, the likelyhood of an actual cue forming in a situation that has descended to people stealing snowglobes and copies of fishermanmonthly en masse, let alone the apocalypse and a MIA toll of several billion world wide also happening at the same time, is slim to nil.
    Second off, The counter lady would be the one who is having to put up with stupid little tension breaking comments, and is also stressed off her head anyway from having to deal with all the angry and impolite people giving her suggestions, and her having to repeat the same negative reply over and over again to everyone who comes and asks her.
    She would be angry, stressed and worried about her own family (if we ignore the very real possibility that she might be severely shocked by the image of death and destruction that she has to stare at behind the customers), and when someone says “Oh, you mean because I did not do something you asked?” to her, she would roll her eyes and reply with “No. I. Can’t. Do. Anything. For. You. I don’t know why people are even queing up here, can’t they see the runway is covered in wreckage and injured people? You want to get a connecting flight to your home town right? There’s no outgoing flights, you want to find out when there will be outgoing flights? I don’t know, nobody knows, I’d try exercising that thumb of yours, it’s going to be a long hitchhike” and the unfortunate hero would then have to charm and arrange for himself a charter pilot, thereby showing the reader his actual personality rather than stating it in narrator speak and then not bakcing that up with his words and deeds.
    It shows a total lack of understanding what being that counter person is like for the person in question, well they seem all happy and bouncy when the apocalypse isn’t going down, and they’ve had training to deal with crisis situation dontchaknow.
    Snobs.

  • Scott

    I guess the lady working at an _airline_counter_ at an _airport_ didn’t know anyone who could have possibly been killed in a mass of _airplane_ crashes to have been worried enough to react. People haven’t just been raptured off the planet, people have been dropped onto the planet as adults with no connections to anyone whatsoever.

  • Grotesqueticle

    In the interests of “holding you to this schedule” I am going to nudge you 6 days early for next fridays dissection of the next few pages.

  • Lisa

    I’ve never posted here before, but I just wanted to let you know I really enjoy your Left Behind commentary and I’m glad you decided to up it to each Friday. If you can’t stand it, though, I’ll understand :)

  • Lisa

    I’ve never posted here before, but I just wanted to let you know I really enjoy your Left Behind commentary and I’m glad you decided to up it to each Friday. If you can’t stand it, though, I’ll understand :)

  • Andy

    Wait…ALL children? Even that girl who threw the temper tantrum at Frank’s Market last week? She got raptured? Hmm. I hope heaven has an adults only section, then.

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    I wonder whether the LB archives would be publishable when you’ve covered the first book, or if they’d violate fair use. I can just see it: _Left Behind: A Christian Perspective_ with the cover as a black/color reversal of the original cover desigh.

  • Darryl Pearce

    ..uh, um, er…
    If the raptured are “taken up” and the disbelievers get seven years of tribulation… why are people dying all over the place? Are they going straight to hell? (Do NOT pass go).
    Heh. If I get to see a really wicked seven-headed dragon coming out of the sea, it just might be worth it.
    Go ahead, Zeus! Throw your thunderbolts. –Oh! Wrong religion!

  • Scott

    “why are people dying all over the place? Are they going straight to hell?”
    Yes, as far as L&J are concerned.

  • Beth

    Buck and the agent are just being Very Nice People, terribly “christian” toward anyone in their clique, while blithely ignoring the suffering of anyone outside it.

  • Chris_uk

    It’s interesting to note the GOD in all these books is the old testament God of retribution rather than the forgiving God Jesus Christ taught of….
    If L&J are Christians why don’t they focus more on ‘The Bible: PART 2 ‘ …. aka the bit with J.C. in it, rather than the defunct older bits.

  • http://progressivegoldbeta.blogspot.com/2005/04/slacktivist-on-left-behind-fred-clark.html Progressive Gold: the Best of the Left

    The Slacktivist on Left Behind

    Fred Clark has returned to the thankless job of criticising the Left Behind series

  • R. Mildred

    Just wait darryl, JESUS EYE LAZERS await the faithful

  • Mike

    Whee! LB is back! Fridays will be so much more fun now….
    Just for the hell of it, go out and get a copy of Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer and compare the description of the behavior of survivors of the world-ending catastrophe in that book with these exerpts from one of most execrable books of all time. Admittedly, N&P are not Leo Tolstoy or Charles Dickens, but for a couple of libertarian SF authors, those two tower in greatness above the cruddy, worthless scribblings of LeHay and Jenkins. What a couple of hacks.
    And, as for editors, there are none any longer, certainly not in the major publishing houses. I think Tom Clancy had them all taken out.

  • laughingman

    I once read the first volume of Left Behind. I finished it because, well, I can’t stand leaving a book unread. Before I turned each page I thought, “It’s got to get better. All of it can’t be this bad.” Oh, my naieve days of youth and whimsy.
    Weep when you realize that this is the best-selling fiction series in the United States.

  • http://www.beta57.com/wordpress/index.php?p=131 Meandering Vaguely Around Timnah

    Christianity Today

    The Pope vs. Fred Clarke in “post about two mostly unrelated topics” cage match. Of doom! Two men enter, one man leaves!

  • http://www.beta57.com/wordpress/index.php?p=131 Meandering Vaguely Around Timnah

    Christianity Today

    The Pope vs. Fred Clarke in “post about two mostly unrelated topics” cage match. Of doom! Two men enter, one man leaves!

  • Roger

    Hooray for getting back to giving us the skinny on this mockery of all that is good fiction or religion. If you don’t continue, thou surely shalt be smited by our Lord!

  • Roger

    Hooray for getting back to giving us the skinny on this mockery of all that is good fiction or religion. If you don’t continue, thou surely shalt be smited by our Lord!

  • emjaybee

    Hooray for you continuing! I hope it’s not schadenfreude that makes me enjoy your commentary, but nope, I think it’s just appreciation that someone is dissecting this pablum as it deserves.
    While a fundie, I always felt guilt about all those sinners who were going to die during the Rapture–I always sort of hoped God would engineer a lot of miracles allowing planes to land and cars to not crash, so that my getting raptured wouldn’t involve their horrible painful deaths. Which just goes to show how messed up the whole idea is.

  • Darryl Pearce

    …ha-Ha-hA-HA! Thanks, Mildred!
    As the LB authors would say, “Look upon my works, ye mighty… and despair!”

  • Charles Sperling

    A couple of weeks ago, *The New York Times Book Review* had a brief article on the latest volume in the *Left Behind* saga, and Jenkins made no apologies for his writing abilities. While he wished that he “could write a book that was hard for people to read” (paraphrase, though not too much of one), he seemed quite content with what he had written as it was. (It puts money in thy purse, as Iago might say to Rodrigo.)
    I hope you can keep to the Friday plan, but, rest assured, I’ll continue to be pleased with each new installment, whenever it appears.

  • mom de plume II

    Lucifer’s Hammer is a good comparison, or get hold of Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank. Dated but stands up pretty well.

  • Donald Johnson

    Mike and mom de plume are right–the secular SF writers who’ve done end of the world novels are orders of magnitude better than L&J. And L&J should, if anything, have the advantage, because there’s even more at stake than the collapse of civilization and the struggle to survive–people who lose out in their scenario get to spend an eternity in hell. Oddly enough, since that is their real theme, they don’t do enough with it. There are some genuinely good people (in the normal sense of the term) who die unsaved in this series and by the rules of the book they are going to burn in hell, but you don’t get the full horror of this at all. Dante has nothing to fear from these two.
    On end of the world novels, I liked Lucifer’s Hammer and Alas Babylon was okay, but my favorite was one by Greg Bear, I think–”The Forge of God”. Of course it’s my favorite and yet I can’t remember the title for certain or the author.

  • Evan

    Now wait a second. God’s omnipotent, right? Is there some theological reason he can’t postpone rapturing airline pilots until after they’ve landed?
    This is a tortious act of gross negligence, and I think there should be a lawsuit of truly apocalyptic proportions.

  • R. Mildred

    Now wait a second. God’s omnipotent, right? Is there some theological reason he can’t postpone rapturing airline pilots until after they’ve landed?
    Which implies one of three things, either A) Nobody that wasn’t already raptured is going to get raptured later or B) Anyone who dies now is instantly sent to the appropriate place, and the whole 7 year tribulation stuff is just god’s sick joke on the world or C) all the born again evangelical, millenial dispensationalist pilots were on schedules that ensured at least one pilot was actually in the air at all times so god just picked a time and said “to hell with the consequences”, briefly forgetting that he can actually personally ensure that all the planes don’t crash with his powers of omnipotence (and metaphor).
    Omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent the Big Gee-Dog may be, but he’s mighty forgetful when it comes to planes flying into stuff, as they whispered during the Republican Nation Convention

  • Mark

    Which implies one of three things, either A) Nobody that wasn’t already raptured is going to get raptured later or B) Anyone who dies now is instantly sent to the appropriate place, and the whole 7 year tribulation stuff is just god’s sick joke on the world or C) all the born again evangelical, millenial dispensationalist pilots were on schedules that ensured at least one pilot was actually in the air at all times so god just picked a time and said “to hell with the consequences”, briefly forgetting that he can actually personally ensure that all the planes don’t crash with his powers of omnipotence (and metaphor).
    It implies all of those things, really. It’s generally understood among the Rapturists that it’s a one-time event; if you aren’t Saved when R-Day rolls around, you can’t get Raptured later. You can get _Saved_ later, up to a point, but you still have to go through the Tribulation.
    Which brings us to “sick joke”. Even assuming an Old Testament God who doesn’t mind torching the occasional city as a sign to Repent, for the End is Near!, the Tribulation makes no sense. All the Christians get beamed up at the beginning, so there’s virtually no one left to _tell_ people to Repent!. Under this theory, God takes the messengers of the Gospel out of the world just before the world gets its last, best chance to listen to them–and then _sends them back_ once the window is closed and everyone else is safely damned. The Tribulation is Purgatory in reverse–a time of preparation to make everyone suitable for Hell.
    As for the plane crashes: Given that L&J’s God stopped an all-out thermonuclear war a few pages earlier by, apparently, blowing up the missiles in the upper atmosphere and then deflecting all the debris, you’d think He could find some solution to this problem. But the nuke war was pre-Rapture. As soon as the pilots were gone, the remaining passengers were in the Tribulation and, by definition, deserved everything they got.

  • David

    The idea of planes crashing out of the sky as their pilots are raptured has been a popular staple of Rapture lore for decades, not unlike it’s position in the mythology of Y2K. It was a popular dramatic device in many a call to repent, tucked in alongside the two men walking together, and two woman grinding grain. L&J had to have it in their book, just like the Batman films had to have Batarangs – to keep the fanboys happy. ;)
    There even used to be a common popular urban legend in Christian circles that airlines wouldn’t let two Christian pilots fly together in case one got raptured…

  • Jim

    David, you made a connection click about what is most irritating with this whole thing. These people are trying to turn the Bible into a comic book.
    Is there some some technical ecclesiastical term for taking a sublime teaching about the impermanence of all created things, eschatalogy, and turning it into cheap pop entertainment? Maybe not, maybe that’s a perfectly valid and reasonable method of teaching. But I had better never hear one of these people accuse anyone else of conforming to mainstream culture.

  • chingachook

    Just for the hell of it, go out and get a copy of Niven & Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer and compare the description of the behavior of survivors of the world-ending catastrophe in that book with these exerpts from one of most execrable books of all time.
    Wow . . . I remember reading that book when I was 12. I was quite taken with it, as I recall, to the point where I was reading it during math class.
    Hadn’t thought about it for years . . . thanks for the flashback.

  • The Lodger

    Jim,
    Maybe we could call it the Omega Punt.

  • Sandals

    If people are interested in secular end-of-the-world disaster novels, be sure to read the works of Jack McDevitt. ‘Moonfall’ is an interesting twist on the doomsday comet scenario, wherein the comet impacts the moon rather than earth. ‘Deepsix’ is probably one of my favorites, of a group of people stranded on a planet doomed to imminent destruction.

  • Mabus

    I’m not a book critic, and for a while I was enjoying the series even though I completely disagree with the premise. But then the preview chapter of Armageddon came out…
    The pitiful woman wandering about the New Babylon complex trying to repent and not being allowed to sickened me, and I could read no more. Say, isn’t the whole point of the Tribulation to get people to repent? So what purpose does it serve to refuse them just because they have a metal thingie on their heads?

  • aunursa

    I once read the first volume of Left Behind. I finished it because, well, I can’t stand leaving a book unread. Before I turned each page I thought, “It’s got to get better. All of it can’t be this bad.”
    I slaved through all twelve books. I prayed in vain that one of the characters would die unsaved, so that the authors would show how the other characters dealt with the knowledge that a friend or loved one would be going to hell.
    All for naught. Practically EVERY sympathetic character AND all their loved ones get saved. What a copout!
    David, you made a connection click about what is most irritating with this whole thing. These people are trying to turn the Bible into a comic book.
    Trying to? They’re already hawking Left Behind, the graphic novel.
    Five novels per book. (I.e. Left Behind is split into five parts, as is the first sequel.)

  • Jim

    “Trying to..” I was trying to be nice. I slip into hysterical accusation mode so easily when it comes to this kind of thing. I know Jesus would have been tolerant of all this tackines and vulgarity, because, well, that’s how we are, but it makes me get sneery, so I overcompensate.
    The sad thing is that people going in for all this drama are indulging their own appetites at the expense of sharing Christ with people, because it just makes Christianity look so silly.

  • Bad Methodist

    These commentaries are just the best. I frankly was so disguested by the bad theology that I missed much of the bad writing. There are so many reasons to loathe these books it’s hard to catch them all.

  • Jesurgislac

    Hey! I know the Pope died and everything, but where’s the Friday Left Behind post, eh?

  • http://slacktivist.typepad.com/slacktivist/2005/04/lb_neros_fiddle.html testanchor919

    testanchor549

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  • Someone

    This scene could be salvaged easily. The idea of a person who’s so overwhelmed by tragedy that they can’t help but laugh (in a “Oh, what now?” sort of way) has a time-honored tradition in writing

    “You need to get a flight? Every runway is blocked, every plane is grounded, and parts of the airport are still on fire! But what the hell. I’m still here at the counter, so what can I do for you?”

  • Messier Tidy Upper

    Yep. ‘Forge of God’ by Greg Bear – great novel and I loved the sequel ‘Anvil of Stars’ even better.


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