NRA: No one’s gonna save you from the Beast about to strike

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 37-43

Jerry Jenkins wants to write a thriller.

That’s not what this book is. Nor can this series accommodate having a thriller subplot shoehorned into it. Yet every little bit Jenkins makes a kind of spastic feint in the direction of the thriller he seems to wish he were writing instead of this.

In the first book in the series, we encountered to the oddly disconnected interlude of Buck’s trip to London. He flew there after the suspicious death of his friend Dirk — a paranoid Man Who Knew Too Much stock character who had wandered into Left Behind from some unrelated suspense novel. Buck meets a policeman in a pub, witnesses a car-bombing, and flees under a false name. He travels “incognito” for nearly 12 hours before the whole subplot fizzles out and proves itself unrelated to the rest of the book.

The second volume’s thriller-ish bit is even less successful. It consists of an accidentally comical tangent during which Buck passively fears for his life while riding in a limo from the airport.

Thrillers aren’t really all that complicated, but both of those passages suggest that Jenkins has only a tenuous grasp on the formula. He gets that the hero must be in danger — that his life must be threatened by shadowy, powerful forces. But that’s about it. That these shadowy, powerful forces ought to have some reason, some pretext for wanting the hero dead doesn’t seem to occur to him.

We see this pattern repeat itself in the next little bit wherein we’re reintroduced to Earl Halliday. After arriving in Dallas and walking past the line of global princes, Rayford sees his old boss:

At the end of the row was Earl Halliday, standing stiffly and staring straight ahead. Carpathia shook hands with each of the four ambassadors in turn and ignored Halliday, who seemed to expect that. Rayford walked directly to Halliday and stuck out his hand. Halliday ignored it and spoke under his breath. “Get away from me, Steele, you scum!”

Halliday, it turns out, distrusts Rayford because he works for Nicolae Carpathia. This is odd both because Earl is the one who got Rayford that job, and because Earl is also working for Carpathia.

Earl’s initial hostility here seems to be just another chance for the authors to portray Rayford as unfairly accused, which is the closest they can come to portraying him as a good person. I suppose that works for their intended audience of American evangelical readers, since for that audience, to be unfairly accused has become the primary indicator of virtue. (Or, really, just being accused. If encountering a hostile response is an indicator of virtue, then one must be virtuous and, therefore, all accusations against one must be unfair. QED.)

You’ll recall that Halliday is here because he was enlisted by Nicolae to design and build his new airplane, the Condor 216. Earl’s role in this story thus makes even less sense than Rayford’s does. He’s a middle manager for a commercial airline, not an engineer or even a mechanic. Earl is the guy Rayford calls if he’s sick and needs someone else to cover his flights. He is, in other words, utterly unqualified for the task Nicolae conscripted him to perform.

Nicolae is the Antichrist, remember, and now controls every air force on the planet. The world’s best aviation designers, engineers and craftsmen all work for him. Boeing, Airbus and every defense contractor in the world is now — officially or de facto — a wholly-owned subsidiary of Antichrist, Inc.

With a single-page memo, Nicolae could have created “Project Condor” to design and build his plane at some remote island site. And then, if for some reason he wanted to, he could have written another one-page memo and thereby had every worker involved in that project disappeared, eliminated without a trace. I can’t imagine why he would want to write that second memo, but here we learn that this is just the sort of fate Nicole apparently intends for poor Earl Halliday.

Try to follow this:

“I’m not working for Carpathia, Rayford. I was pressed into service. I’m still a Pan-Con chief pilot at O’Hare, but when duty calls –”

“Why didn’t Carpathia tell me he was aware of you?” Rayford said. “He asked me to find somebody to fly Global Community One into New York. He didn’t know I would choose you.”

“He must have,” Earl said. “Who else would you pick?”

Ouch. It seems kind of mean for Earl to be so blunt about the fact that Rayford doesn’t have any friends. Rayford doesn’t seem to mind, or to notice, though. And he can’t really be offended — he knows very well that he doesn’t have any friends. Earl continues:

“I was asked to help design the new plane, and I thought it would be fun just to test it a little bit. Then I get asked to fly the original plane to New York. Since the request came from you, I was flattered and honored. It was only when I got on the ground and realized the plane and I were targets that I got out of New York and headed back to Chicago as fast as I could. I never got there. I got word from Carpathia’s people while I was in the air that I was needed in Dallas to brief you on this plane.”

“I’m lost,” Rayford said.

“Well, I don’t know much either,” Earl said. “But it’s clear Carpathia wanted my going to New York and winding up dead to look like your decision, not his.”

“Why would he want you dead?”

“Maybe I know too much.”

Here is where, if this were an actual thriller, Earl would go on to explain what this “too much” that he knows might be. But he has no idea and doesn’t even speculate.

Earl and Rayford somberly agree that Carpathia’s allowing Earl to fly to New York must mean the Antichrist wants him dead. It doesn’t occur to either of them (or to the authors) that Carpathia also diverted Earl from flying into the about-to-be-bombed Chicago airport. Wouldn’t that suggest he wanted Earl alive?

Jenkins layers on the ominous, thriller-ish atmosphere for the next couple of pages. “I’m a dead man,” Earl says. And, “Watch your back, Rayford.” And, “I’m not safe.” But it all fizzles out pretty quickly. Earl rigs up a narrative convenience and then just kind of wanders off, taking this latest half-hearted “thriller” interlude with him.

So to recap, Nicolae enlists the non-expertise of a woefully unqualified non-expert to oversee the design and construction of his new airplane. And now, we’re told, he inexplicably wants that man dead. Yet, even more inexplicably — despite having absolute dictatorial power and hypnotic mind control — he has not yet been able to kill him.

Why? How does any of that make sense?

Don’t try to answer that. First, because it cannot be done. There simply exists no explanation for any of this, and trying to find one in the text or to devise one and then overlay it on the text is just a waste of time. And second because asking that question whenever we encounter such utter nonsense will prevent us from turning the pages and continuing on through this book. If you’re determined to keep doing that, then the only way to do so — the only way to plow through a book as frequently nonsensical as this one — is to sometimes just laugh, shrug it off, and keep going.

That’s the choice here — either insist on the story making sense or keep reading. One cannot do both.

The best one can manage, if one is to keep reading, is to try to make pseudo-sense of the story according to its own (inconsistent) rules. One of those rules in this series seems to be that, despite the global scope of this story, only a handful of named characters actually matter, and thus any significant deed must be performed by one of them.

Someone had to design and build this airplane. And although air forces, military contractors and aviation companies seem to exist in this world, they do not really count as possible actors. Thus the list of potential candidates for the design and construction of this plane does not include Boeing, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman. The designers and builders, instead, must be selected from among our small cast of named characters. Earl Halliday may be utterly unqualified for this task, but he’s slightly less unqualified than Steve Plank, Verna Zee, Chaim Rosenzweig, Spiky Alice or Loretta. So, for the authors, it makes perfect sense for Earl to get this job.

The constant fizzling out of these thriller subplots is a disappointment for me. I like thrillers. My favorite movie is the story of an innocent person unwittingly embroiled in an international scheme. I’ll watch that movie every time.

And the universe of Tim LaHaye’s End Times mythology seems to provide one of the key building blocks for a successful thriller. Every such thriller needs to provide a plausible answer to this question: Why doesn’t he/she just go to the police?

If you’ve got a good answer to that question, then the story is well on its way. And if you’ve got a new answer to that question, then you are well on your way to making a fortune in Hollywood.*

LaHaye’s universe offers an excellent answer to that question. The police cannot be trusted because they work for Nicolae. So does the media. There’s nowhere to turn for help or for shelter, no one to trust, no credible institutions left to assist the hero. Viewed from that angle, this universe sets the stage perfectly for a thrilling thriller.

But then in other ways, this universe is inhospitable to that kind of story because it allows no room for shadowy powerful forces. The Antichrist is in charge of everything — nothing shadowy or conspiratorial about it. And — although LaHaye and Jenkins never quite understand how much sheer power they’ve given him — the Antichrist is probably too powerful to allow any renegade fugitive to survive for long. Remember the thriller-ish portion of 1984? That didn’t last very long or work out very well for the protagonist.

In any case, at this point Jenkins is stuck. He’s more than two volumes into this series and it’s too late now to shift away from his initial, fatal choice of telling this story top-down from the point of view of characters snugly entrenched in the inner circles of the Antichrist’s power. Thrillers want to be set on the periphery — with the powerless struggling against distant powers whose faces are shrouded in shadows.

That choice is part of why Left Behind never manages to be as exciting as A Thief in the Night and Donald W. Thompson’s other no-budget Rapture movies. Thompson’s hero, Patty, wasn’t important (or self-important), and seeing this powerless woman fleeing for her life, even when pursued only by cheesy vans and a sickly helicopter, was scary in a way that watching Rayford hob-nob with Nicolae on a Learjet can never be.

In a sense, the two favorite biblical books of End Times enthusiasts offer two different templates for telling the story of beastly imperial power. Revelation was written by an exiled outcast and it was addressed to a bunch of other outcasts in the provinces. Daniel, on the other hand, borrows a motif from the story of Joseph and quickly arranges to have its hero promoted to the inner circle of Pharaoh/Nebuchadnezzar/Antichrist.** That shifts the story from the provincial periphery of the exiles to the top-down point of view of the beast’s own throne room.

In the Left Behind series, LaHaye & Jenkins opted for the top-down, Daniel/Joseph model, bringing their protagonists into Nicolae’s inner circle (even though neither has a knack for interpreting dreams). That lets Jenkins show the Antichrist at work, first-hand and up-close. But it also all-but rules out trying to tell this story as a thriller of renegades on the run.

The bigger problem with trying to insert a thriller subplot in these books, though, is the sheer fatalism of LaHaye’s End Times ideology. What has been prophesied, he believes, must happen and will happen and should happen. The heroes cannot do anything to stop the villain. And the heroes should not do anything to stop the villain.

That doesn’t just prevent this story from being a thriller, it prevents this story from offering any thrills at all.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The other question for which Hollywood is perpetually seeking a new answer is: “If they love each other, why can’t they just get together/get married/admit their feelings?” As with the just-go-to-the-police question, this one already has a large stable of serviceable stock answers, many of which still have plenty of life left in them. But a new answer could well be worth a fortune. “They love each other, but they can’t get married/admit their feelings because _________________.” Fill in that blank with a new answer and you can take it to the bank.

** I’m sure it exists, but I’ve not found or read any extensive discussion of the parallels between the biblical stories of Joseph and Daniel, which seem too numerous and too similar to be coincidental. John’s Apocalypse builds on that same story, adding more improvisational riffs to the same tune. Pharaoh, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, seven fat years, seven lean years, seven churches, seven seals, seven bowls, seven trumpets, seventy sevens, plagues, judgments, feet of clay, dreams and visions — everybody seems to be playing the same song here.

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  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    “They love each other, but they can’t get married/admit their feelings because _one of them is scared and emotionally confused, or both of them are_.” Does that often work? I know of one romance series that was able to distinguish itself and become quite popular by having the blank just being “they’re shy around each other and one is still getting used to having friends at all.”

  • Lori

     

    “They love each other, but they can’t get married/admit their feelings
    because _one of them is scared and emotionally confused, or both of them
    are_.”  

    Definitely not a new answer. That’s the basic plot of a lot of romance novels. A lot.

  • http://twitter.com/shay_guy Shay Guy

    Well, I’m not exactly knowledgeable on romance novels. :P But while I haven’t done anything like a serious study, I’ve gotten the impression that Hollywood tends to feel a need for something more gimmicky and easy to pin down as The Big Problem.

  • Lori

    I think there’s a certain kind of indy film that considers terminal shyness or awkwardness is a perfectly reasonable hook to hang a story on, but otherwise I’d say that you’re right.

  • vsm

    I’m more optimistic about Twilight, actually. For all its faults, it has shown executives there’s money in girl-focused fiction (executives aren’t very smart). I doubt Hunger Games, for instance, would have ever become the worldwide phenomenon it is without Twilight (my copy of the first book even has Stephenie Meyer’s recommendation on the cover). It is indeed sad there hasn’t been much mainstream fiction discussing female sexuality in a way that would appeal to women, but maybe things are now changing.

    I also find it funny that Twilight has indirectly made BDSM porn semi-mainstream.

  • Lori

    I think the fact that the Twilight fanfac that’s gone mainstream is BDSM porn says quite a lot about both Twilight and the extent to which its fans “get” the issues with the relationship Meyer created.

  • vsm

    tw: rape

    I think many Twilight critics miss that essential part. Of course the girls and women who read the books realize Edward is a controlling bastard. That’s exactly what his appeal is. As I understand it, he isn’t even a particularly extreme version of the character type, common in romance fiction.

    The Nana manga, written for a primary audience of teenage girls, deals with such a character in an interesting way. The main character has unprotected sex with him, becomes pregnant, decides to keep the baby, is raped by him yet marries him so he’ll provide for her and her child (the characters in Nana don’t make very good life decisions). He treats her badly, cheats on her and rapes her again. After all this, she finally realizes that she’s in a sick relationship with a sick man and leaves him. All fine and good, for given definitions of fine and good.

    The part I still don’t understand is how despite all this, he isn’t treated as the villain of the piece but just another player in the drama. He gets to have healthy and positive relationships with other people, he’s presented as sexy, scenes are told from his perspective, he even gets a lengthy side chapter detailing his backstory. The story both realizes he’s a horrible person (no bullshit about love redeeming him) and at the same time normalizes his behaviour. And that’s how reading expands your mind and let’s you experience other people’s perspectives.

  • Lori

     

    And that’s how reading expands your mind and let’s you experience other people’s perspectives.  

    I’m going to be honest and say that normalizing a rapist isn’t a perspective that I actually want to experience. I’ve seen enough of that IRL. I can’t entirely avoid rape culture and I only have so much energy, so I’m not voluntering to wade into it when I don’t have to. I don’t read old skool or Alphole romance novels for the same reason. The energy expenditure to pay-off ratio just doesn’t work for me.

  • vsm

    I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant experience, just that the author’s ambivalence was bizarre. I fear it’s going to turn into one of those obsessions where I spend the next two years trying to understand where it was coming from by studying romance novels starting from Chretien de Troyes.

  • Lori

    I totally get the obsession thing. Good luck with that. Let us know if you come to any interesting conclusions.

  • aunursa

    Then I don’t understand your question.  Why did I read each book a second time?  Or why do I seem to have a photographic memory of the series?

  • Tricksterson

    No, I mean once you realized what a crappy series it was, why did you continue to read it at all.

  • aunursa

    Oh, okay, now I understand.

    One, to see what happened.  (Who dies?  Who lives to see Jesus return?  What happens when Jesus returns? How bad does the plot get? etc.)

    Two, I was looking — it turned out in vain — for a couple of things.  Such as a character that the Tribulation Force was rooting for die unsaved.  Ore even a character dealing with the realization that a loved one was burning in hell.  And I was seeking a scene with a fair debate between Christian theology and another religion.

  • Newbiddoobiedoo

    Such as a character that the Tribulation Force was rooting for die unsaved.

    Krystall? Otto missed her, anyway.

    You’re right; it’s like Cendrillon is in second place. Everyone called her a “wonderful girl” until she died. Then, the pile-on. And her parents had to sit through it, too.

  • aunursa

    Actually I’m referring to anyone who was undecided who died without choosing between GOOD and EVIL.  For instance Hattie Durham became an RTC in Book #7 and died in Book #9.  I was rooting for her or Chaim Rosenzweig to die unsaved to see how the Tribulation Force would react to the knowledge that their close friend was suffering in hell with no hope of redemption.

    Krystall would fall into the category of Rayford giving a damn about the fact that she is doomed to eternal torment … or even considering the conundrum that she is assisting the Tribulation Force (and presumably, therefore also helping God) in spite of the fact that God has given her no hope of avoiding an eternity in the Lake of Fire.

  • Ursula L

    Halliday, it turns out, distrusts Rayford because he works for Nicolae Carpathia. This is odd both because Earl is the one who got Rayford that job, and because Earl is alsoworking for Carpathia. 

     

    The thing is, this ought to be a genuine problem.

    Both Earl and Rayford are, essentially, undercover operatives for the resistance in a place that has been invaded and occupied.

    Yeah, it’s Romania taking over the world, which is fairly improbable, but let’s run with it.

    Now, when a nation is invaded and occupied, one of the things that can happen is the growth of a resistance movement.  We see this in all sorts of situations, whether it is occupied areas such as the Netherlands, France, Poland, the USSR or other nations during WWII, or insurgent activity in modern Iraq and Afghanistan.   If you invade and occupy, there will be resistance.  Because the very act of invading and occupying does measurable harm, not just in lives lost in the fight but also in terms of damage to the national pride and patriotism of the people whose home has been attacked and occupied.

    Another thing that pretty much always happens when a land is invaded and occupied is that some locals will choose to collaborate with the occupying power.  This may be due to material self-interest, such as cash payments to informants, or it may be due to fear of what will be done to them if they don’t cooperate and collaborate or it may be due to genuine sympathy with the purposes of the people who have invaded and occupied their homeland.  

    And both the resistance and the occupying force (using  local collaborators) will actively try to have agents undercover with the opposing group, for the sake of spying and sabotage. 

    This creates a problem.  How do you figure out which side you want to be on?  And how do you tell friend from foe?  And, for both sides, how do you keep the capture or subversion of one person on your side from being an intelligence nightmare, with large amounts of valuable secret information being shared with the enemy?

    On the other hand, how can you ensure that agents you’ve managed to place successfully undercover in the opposing group can cooperate and help each other, to best support your side?  

    There are a variety of ways that this can be managed.  

    You can have undercover agents report to a discrete handler, who passes on information both from the operative to the larger organization and vice-versa.   This tends to be useful for the occupying power, which can maintain an visible occupation government.  The interface between the occupying force and their spies in the resistance needs to be hidden.   But the spies can be coordinated, via their handlers.  

    Or you can organize in cells.  You have leadership, and layers of organization, but within the organization, no one knows more than a handful of people, so that if they are captured, they don’t have much information to give away.  

    There are probably other ways to organize, but these two are both well-established historically and suitable for making my point.

    ***

    For the anti-Antichrist resistance, a cell organization makes more sense.  They’re dealing not merely with an occupying power, but with an occupying power that includes supernatural powers such as being able to psychically turn resistance members whose faith fails them in a time of crisis.  And they can’t have a noticeable organizational structure which might control and guide their operatives through suitable handlers.  

    If Rayford and Earl are both undercover operatives for the anti-Carpathia/anti-Romanian resistance then neither of them should be aware that the other is also undercover.  Because if either one is discovered or subverted, you don’t want them to be able to betray the other. 

    Rayford and Earl should not trust each other, unless their specific assignments within the resistance require them to know each other in order to cooperate on a specific action.  

    And even then, they shouldn’t fully trust each other, because each knows that the other might be identified and subverted or captured and forced to talk. 

    But both  of them should be subtly sounding out the other, to determine if the other could be useful to the anti-Antichrist organization and also willing to cooperate despite the certain personal risk in joining the resistance.

    ***
     
    L&J aren’t merely creating an absurd situation where two anti-Antichrist individuals who have infiltrated the Antichrist’s organization don’t recognize each other.

    They’ve screwed up what is possibly the best chance they have of creating genuine dramatic tension in the story.  

    Rayford and Earl both recognizes the Antichrist as the Antichrist.  They both realize that they ought to do something to stop the Antichrist and promote the pro-Turbo-Jesus effort.  And they both see an chance to infiltrate the Antichrist’s organization for the good of the anti-Antichrist movement.  They might even both join anti-Antichrist resistance organizations, either groups that developed separately and don’t coordinate, or the same group but without knowing each other.

    And Earl may have “recruited” Rayford to work for Carpathia knowing that Rayford is an incompetent  idiot who can do more harm being there and stupid than a trained agent working effectively undercover could ever manage. Not realizing that Rayford is deliberately sabotaging things when he can, even though it makes him look incompetent but loyal to Carpathia.  Because incompetent but loyal is more useful to a dictator than competent but potentially disloyal.  

    And each is trying, subtly, to figure out if the other is either already anti-Antichrist or potentially recruitable to the anti-Antichrist effort.

    Each of them is also very aware of the need to aappear to be pro-Antichrist, for the sake of their cover. 

    Either high drama about the difficulties of being a resistance fighter or low comedy about mistaken identity and crossed signals should then occur.  The one thing that this plot-twist shouldn’t be is boring, even if the resistance proves ultimately futile. 

    ***

    And if anyone here who is good at creating story wants to write a story with this premise, go for it. 

  • Kiba

    What has been prophesied, he believes, must happen and will happen and should happen. The heroes cannot do anything to stop the villain. And the heroes should not do anything to stop the villain.
    That doesn’t just prevent this story from being a thriller, it prevents this story from offering any thrills at all.

    I would say that it doesn’t just prevent the story from being a thriller, it prevents it from being much of a story.

  • Tricksterson

    Seeing that there is an active militia opposing Carpathia do Ray and Buck et all ever get in contact with them or try to help them?

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Not that I remember.  Also, Ray in particular has a horror of guns, with the exception of the special gun that he wants to use to kill Nicolae.  Even when people offer him weapons for the cause at absolutely no cost, he turns up his nose at them.

    Then again, I can see the whole “no guns” policy just being another facet of the Tribbers’ insularity.  Guns tend to be offered by outsiders or newbies.  And Ray is far more scared of newcomers than he coud ever be of a silly ole gun.  (He positively freaks out when Chloe discovers a different band of believers, and wants to invite them to live with the Tribbers.)  

  • aunursa

    Seeing that there is an active militia opposing Carpathia do Ray and Buck et all ever get in contact with them or try to help them?

    I don’t believe so.  Rayford in particular, and especially in the later books, gets involved in military operations with the Tribulation Force.  But that is long after the militia movements have been wiped out.

  • Tricksterson

    Yeah, because that might actually make sense and be useful.

  • Joshua

    Stephen Baxter mentioned in passing romantic couples separated by the fact that one was matter and the other antimatter. They were together during an earlier, inflationary period of the big bang when such things did not matter, but with things cooling off and symmetries breaking, relationships were no longer viable.

    Yeah. Weird. And not a tenth as depressing as the rest of the novel, Exultant I believe, which among stiff competition is IMHO actually his most depressing novel. I think that from his very cynical point of view, the title is not actually ironic.

    Piers Anthony’s writing really does show sex, age and consent issues that totally repel me. As far as I can tell, they appear in all his work, although I stopped reading them pretty quick. If you don’t want to read that kind of thing, then don’t open the book, because you won’t be able to avoid it. He also consistently goes for transparent excuses to justify that the hero is still an OK guy.

  • Newbiedoobiedoo

    That was me … can’t spell today

  • Daniel

    The solution, I hope, the big revelation (no pun intended) is to come in the final book. The reason no one seems to care and Rayford, Buck et al are allowed to carry on as if they are the only ones that matter is because NONE OF THIS IS HAPPENING. The two “heroes” are so self involved, so utterly preoccupied with their own status and their own power that they have both snapped and become unable to comprehend the existence of other people. The world they are living in is a sort of Matrix, but is a projection from themselves rather than a computer. The apocalypse has not happened, no one has died, Rayford’s wife just got fed up with him being such a gigantic ass that she left him, taking the kid too. Buck was fired for basically never ever doing his job, bullying the rest of the staff and declaring in ever more bombastic terms that he is the bestestest reporter in the whole wide world ever. The resultant breakdowns of the two main characters led them to form a secret club SHHH! of super secret spies who are awesome and handsome and the best and great and a billion squillion times better than the devil and they get girls and cookies.
    Eventually they’ll both come back to sanity- Rayford when he’s busy in a supermarket arranging vegetables into a rough semblance of a cockpit’s controls, Buck when he finally arrives at work one day to find the Global News office is actually his psychiatrist’s office and the “news stories” he’s been writing- very intermittently- are actually art therapy projects. It’ll be bittersweet, it’ll be shocking and poignant and it will dawn on everyone, retrospectively, that these are some of the most insightful books about the frailty of the mindset that gives rise to intolerant ultra-Evangelism since the work of James Baldwin.

    Possibly.


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