TF: The militant Verna

Tribulation Force, pp. 5-8

Wherein LaHaye & Jenkins' overwhelming visceral contempt for women almost succeeds in distracting readers from the astonishing inappropriateness of Buck Williams' actions.

This is, on the surface, a fairly straightforward scene which, like most of Tribulation Force, has nothing to do with theology, "Bible prophecy" or the End Times. All that actually happens is that Buck Williams arrives at his new office following his disciplinary demotion and learns that no longer being the boss means that he's not still in charge and that he doesn't get a prestigious desk.

Buck seems surprised to learn this. He arrives still expecting to receive the deference accorded to his prior rank and all of the perks that went with it. Until now, he doesn't seem to have realized what being demoted meant, and he still fails to understand why he is being punished. Yet despite the absurdity of his arrogance in this context, he's not meant to be the villain of the scene. That honor is reserved for his new boss, Ms. Sensible Shoes herself, Verna Zee.

We don't have the time, expertise or equipment to plumb the full depths of LaHaye & Jenkins' misogyny in this scene. That would require a bathysphere, a team of psychiatrists and a blogger with a stronger stomach than mine. The best I can do here is to point toward or hint at the unfathomable sunless world of their fear and loathing. It won't be pretty.

Buck had put off going to the office. He wasn't expected there until the following Monday anyway, and he didn't relish facing Verna Zee. When it had been his assignment to find a replacement for veteran Lucinda Washington, the Chicago bureau chief who had disappeared, he had told the militant Verna she had jumped the gun by moving into her former boss's office. Now Buck had been demoted and Verna elevated. Suddenly, she was his boss.

It's not clear in that phrase, "the militant Verna," whether the word militant is meant as a noun or an adjective. In either case, it's not a word that can stand alone without further explanation. She's a militant what, exactly? What is it that she militates for?

Verna is, like Buck, a journalist, but we're not being told here that she's a militant journalist. She is also, like Buck, an ambitious go-getter aggressively seeking career advancement. But we're not meant to understand her as a militant careerist either. Verna's militancy seems to refer to something else, and because of that something else, all the traits she shares with Buck are held against her. The very things that are portrayed as assets for him are portrayed as deficiencies for her.

"Cameron," she said flatly, still seated. "I didn't expect you till Monday."

"Just checking in," he said. "You can call me Buck."

"I'll call you Cameron, if you don't mind, and –"

"I do mind. Please call –"

"Then I'll call you Cameron even if you do mind."

As is often the case with these books, it takes effort on the reader's part to interpret the authors' intended effect. They want us to like Buck Williams here, even as he clownishly violates the First Rule of Nicknames, and they want us to dislike Verna just for tweaking his swollen ego.

It's worth reviewing what we were first told about Buck's supposedly rebellious nickname here. This was back in the first book, in the paragraph that introduced him as a character:

At 30, Cameron Williams was the youngest ever senior writer for the prestigious Global Weekly. The envy of the rest of the veteran staff, he either scooped them on or was assigned to the best stories in the world. Both admirers and detractors at the magazine called him Buck, because they said he was always bucking tradition and authority.

In other words, he views the nickname as flattering, as a kind of honorary title acknowledging the "envy" that everyone else must surely feel toward him. By insisting on its use here, then, he is insisting on being flattered. "I require you to flatter me," is never a cool or a likable thing to say. Plus, more often than not, those who insist that others call them by flattering nicknames are overcompensating for some insecurity. (If you met a man who insisted on being called "Buck-steel Cam-plank," for example, you could probably safely guess at his anatomical inadequacies.)

Every sentence in these pages portrays Buck as a swaggering idiot whose only response to his demotion is an expanded sense of entitlement and self-importance, yet we're not meant to perceive Buck this way at all. Even when we read this, presented as Buck's own thoughts from his own point of view:

Would Verna make him pay for his years of celebrity as an award-winning cover-story writer? … Buck felt the stares and smiles of the underlings as he moved through the outer office. … Many, no doubt, would still consider it a privilege to work with him.

It's hard enough to keep liking a character despite such a passage, but L&J want readers to like Buck even more because of it. It's not Buck they want us laughing at and despising here, but the militant Verna.

A brief refresher on what we learned earlier about Verna: In the midst of the biggest breaking news story in the history of the world, her boss at the newsmagazine disappeared and Verna stepped up to fill the vacuum. It may have been a self-promotion, but it was also a battlefield promotion — a corporal taking on the lieutenant's responsibilities while still only earning a corporal's pay. Thanks to Verna, the Chicago office filed copy as the Event unfolded. Buck did not. Instead, he flew to London to investigate the suspicious suicide of a personal friend. For not doing his job, Buck was promoted. His first act in his new position of authority was to fly to Chicago to reprimand Verna for doing both her own job and Lucinda's as well. The nerve. He slapped her down for bucking tradition and authority by not allowing the leadership void to remain unfilled until such time as her superiors eventually got around to filling it.

But again it's Verna here that readers are meant to despise and Buck they're meant to admire. Because Verna is militant. Or perhaps because she's a militant.

So we're going to have to try to unpack that word.

As an adjective, militant means something like stridently or violently zealous. Zealous, of course, doesn't stand alone either. It requires modification or context. One cannot be zealous unless one is zealous about or toward some further aim.

As a noun, militant refers to a fighter, usually not a formal soldier, for a particular cause. This again won't stand alone without some further explanation of what kind of fighter we're talking about. A fighter for what?

The only time the word militant is used without such further explanation is in the context of ongoing stories in which the reader can be expected to understand what sort of militancy or militants are being discussed. A story about "militants" firing rockets into Israel from the Gaza Strip, for example, can be understood to be referring to militant supporters of Hamas.

Verna Zee is not meant to be understood here as a supporter of Hamas, or of the IRA or of some Sunni insurgency in Iraq. Yet t
he word militant is used here without further explanation becaus
e LaHaye & Jenkins assume that their intended audience will understand it in the context of a larger, ongoing story. That story is what they like to call the "culture war" here in the United States, and Verna Zee is, in the familiar phrase of the culture warriors, either a militant feminist or a militant homosexual. They needn't explain which, specifically, since in their view the two categories overlap.

The phrase "militant homosexual" is so common in religious-right jargon that L&J seem not to realize how peculiar it sounds to anyone who doesn't share their phobias. It provides us a glimpse of how they perceive the Pink Menace of homosexuality — a faceless horde in refugee camps south of the border, lobbing deadly, indiscriminate rockets of gayness toward their peaceful homes.

But the key point here, as it applies to the militant Verna, is that for L&J and their intended audience, "militant feminist" is always regarded as a subset of "militant homosexual." For them, in other words, all feminists are presumed to be lesbians, and all lesbians are presumed to hate men.

This leap from sexual orientation to a presumption of militant hatred is illuminating. L&J's visceral opposition to the presumed militant feminists/lesbians is proclaimed as a defense of sexual morality, but that claim is ironic, since lurking just below the surface here is a staggering sexual incontinence. Their cartoonish depiction of the militant Verna Zee is simply L&J's expression of frat-boy douchebag sexual entitlement. Their purported complaint that she fails to display a requisite femininity or wifely submission seems really just the insistence that women — all women — provide universal sexual access. They are saying, in effect, "If you don't agree to have sex with me when I want, whenever I want, then you must be a lesbian. A militant lesbian."

There's a whole chicken-and-egg question here, as it were, as to whether the homophobia or the misogyny is the primary motivator of the caricatured militant Verna. My guess is that, in L&J's case, the homophobia is a kind of misogyny by other means. They can't seem to conceive of feminine lesbians or of masculine gay men, only of ultra-butch women in sensible shoes and of swishy effiminate queens. They seem, in other words, to hate gay men for behaving like women and to hate lesbians for refusing to behave like women. But, as I said earlier, I'm in over my depth here and can't really fathom what they're about.

And in any case it hardly matters whether they hate homosexuals because they hate women or if they hate women because they hate homosexuals — either way they're hateful, hateful people who concocted the entire Verna Zee subplot just to fulfill their fantasy of smacking down an uppity female.

If we can manage, however, to screen out the appalling contempt piled on poor Verna here, it's also worth taking a closer look at Buck Williams' behavior in this scene so we can try to figure out what on earth he's thinking.

We're told that upon arrival, "Buck winked at Alice, Verna's spike-haired young secretary." After Verna informs him that he will need an appointment to get a meeting with her, he sits down next to Alice's desk and proceeds to flirt with her for the next two pages.

"You can call me Buck," he whispered.

"Thanks," she said shyly, pointing to a chair beside her desk.

They whisper together for several more paragraphs, Alice giggling even though Buck never says anything actually funny.

The authors intend us to view Alice sympathetically. She's accommodating, subservient, fawningly grateful for Buck's very presence. She is, in other words, available. She's like Rayford Steele's dream date. Just like Rayford, Buck doesn't need or want to actually avail himself of this attractive young woman, but he does require her to signal to him, constantly, that he could if he wanted to. This may actually be even creepier than the aforementioned douchebaggery.

There are at least two obvious problems with Buck's idly passing the time here with his idea of light-hearted flirtatious banter. First, he's supposedly still in the throes of sappy, first-blush-of-love smittenness over Chloe. Do you think the authors would have approved if instead of Buck and Alice, it had been Chloe and Allen whispering, giggling and winking at one another? Me neither.

But apart from the question of whether light-hearted, flirtatious banter is appropriate with Alice, there's the matter of whether such frivolous chit-chat is at all appropriate or human-seeming just two weeks after the Event. In the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001, even professional comics like Jon Stewart and David Letterman seemed uncertain whether laughter and comic banter were appropriate. (Gilbert Gottfried's legendarily filthy granting of permission to laugh again didn't come until three weeks after that tragedy.) In the wake of the sudden disintegration of every child on the planet and the deaths and disappearances of millions more adults, greeting people with a flirty wink just seems terribly, terribly wrong.

But again, the Event doesn't really exist in this book. "What Has Gone Before" is over and done. That was Book 1. This is Book 2. Anybody still whining about the missing children needs to get over it and move on.

More recent than the Event, however, was the big showdown at the United Nations in which Buck was the only non-brainwashed eyewitness to Nicolae Carpathia's coldblooded murder of two of his closest advisors. That event is still in play here, because that incident is the whole reason Buck got demoted in the first place and sent here to the Chicago bureau.

In addition to brainwashing everyone else in that room to reinterpret how they remembered the killings, Nicolae also brainwashed everyone — apparently everyone in the entire building, city and world — into believing that Buck had not been present.

I can appreciate that this would have been flabbergasting for Buck, but it ought to have sunk in eventually. And once he realized that everyone insisted he hadn't been there, he ought to have stopped responding, "But I was there, really, truly, honest I was!" The obvious smart move would have been to play along, to make up some cover story, some excuse for his supposed absence. If he'd even tried to offer Stanton Bailey some explanation for why he wasn't at the meeting, he'd probably still be editor in chief with the big corner office back in New York.

But Buck still doesn't understand that. As he walks by the "underlings" in Chicago, this is what he imagines them thinking:

By now, of course, everyone knew what had happened. They felt sorry for him, were stunned by his lapse of judgment. How could Buck Williams miss a meeting that would certainly be one of the most momentous in news history …?

No. He wasn't fired because he "missed a meeting." He was fired because, from the brainwashed perspective of his boss and everyone else, he missed a meeting and then lied about being there and then, when he was called on that lie, he had nothing further to say in his own defense.

And because Buck doesn't understand why he was fired, he doesn't understand the larger repercussions of what this mass-brainwashing likely means.

Why would Nicolae bother brainwashing the whole world into believing that Bu
ck wasn't in that room? The most
obvious answer is that he's covering his tracks — that he somehow realized that Buck was immune to his brainwashing, which means that Buck saw and remembered everything that happened in that room, which means that Buck must be born again, which means that Buck is both an eyewitness to his crimes and his sworn enemy.

We've already seen that Nicolae is lethally ruthless in dealing with his opponents and even his potential opponents. Eric Miller, Jonathan Stonagal and Joshua Todd-Cothran all knew too much. Now Buck knows too much. Do the math.

So what on earth is Buck doing blithely wandering around in public, flying to Chicago, buying cars, renting apartments, checking in at the office and flirting with the secretary? He should be in the wind. He should be deep, deep, deep underground. In the last book, he faked his own death to escape from Todd-Cothran. It might be time to try that again, seeing as how the guy who killed Todd-Cothran is the one chasing him now.

The fact that Buck isn't already six kinds of dead makes me lose all respect for Nicolae Carpathia as an evil overlord. 

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  • Kit

    I propose for no helpful reason that Verna is a militant Verna. It makes grammatical sense. She’s the militant Verna. Therefore, she’s militant about…Verna. Somehow.

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  • s_noe

    Verna is an awesomely weird name, as well. Notable first-name Vernas on Wikipedia skew towards movie actresses, suggesting it’s a stagey name an adult might adopt. It has an air of masculinity – know what I mean, Vern? And, of course, it recalls Marcia Gay Harden’s tough-talking dame in Miller’s Crossing, released in 1990. It was rated R, but that had to be for violence, right? Maybe Jenkins went and saw it.

  • s_noe

    From Miller’s Crossing:

    Time – Phrase
    00:09:12 – Who made off with me hat?

    00:09:15 Verna. Verna and Mink.

    00:09:18 {i1}- Who?{r} – Mink and Verna.

    00:09:22 [Vomiting]

    00:09:28 {i1}Is Thunderclap running tonight?{r}

    (Finding that quote on Google led me to discover that there are TWO white-page listings in the US for someone named “Verna Mink.” Awesome.)