NRA: Stick to the script

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist, pp. 66-67

World War III begins and Buck Williams calls his dad.

That’s good. That’s a nice human touch. This is something we humans do when calamity strikes — we reach out to family and loved ones to make sure everyone’s OK.

After a 7.6-magnitude earthquake shook Costa Rica last month, one blogger there wrote, “Check the order of the calls you tried to make and draw your own conclusions. They say that in an earthquake, you first think of what you love most.”

So on the one hand, it’s nice to see Buck demonstrating such a basic human response.

On the other hand, the order of calls that Buck makes here is a bit strange. He seems both to have waited too long to call his dad, and to be calling him too soon.

Most urgently, there’s the matter of the now-forgotten cliff-hanger from the previous scene with Buck. He was on the phone with his wife, Chloe, who was racing to escape the attack on Chicago. That call was abruptly cut off:

But then he heard an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and silence.

The very next line from Buck, three pages later, is, “Who’s got a cell phone I can borrow?”

Readers do not know what has happened to Chloe and presumably want to find out. Since Buck doesn’t know either, we assume he’s asking for a phone so that he can call her, desperately wishing to know what happened — is she OK? Is she conscious? How is she? Where is she?

We expect him to be anxious to learn all of this — anxious to know if she needs him to race to rescue her. But instead he’s weirdly complacent about her fate. After “… an explosion, tires squealing, a scream, and silence,” Buck pleads for a cell phone so he can call someone else.

Verna went back inside to gather up her stuff. Buck waited in her car, making his phone calls. He started with his own father out west. “I’m so glad you called,” his father said. “I tried calling New York for hours.”

Oh, right. Poor Papa Williams out there in Arizona saw the CNN reports on the destruction of New York City and desperately began calling Buck’s Manhattan apartment to learn whether his son was dead or alive. That was hours ago. Since then Buck has gone car-shopping, checked in with computer guy Donnie Moore, printed out 5,000 pages from Bruce’s hard drive, and swung by the office to threaten Verna Zee. At any point during those many hours he might have called his dad, but he didn’t think of it until now.

And now Buck is sitting in the parking lot of the global news organization he supposedly runs due to his supposed status as a world-class journalist. Witnessing the destruction of the city of Chicago, he barks out a command to his staff — someone get me a phone! But his first phone call has nothing to do with the urgent duties and responsibilities of his vocation. It’s a personal call — a personal call to someone other than the wife who is, at this moment, possibly injured on some unknown highway.

This lends a strangeness to the whole conversation that follows between Buck and his dad. Neither of them sounds like someone who exists in the world of this novel. The momentous events surrounding them barely seem to register with father or son — not even when they mention those very events. One gets the impression of a phone call occurring under more mundane circumstances — after New York was hit with a snow storm, maybe, or after Buck has guiltily realized he missed calling on his father’s birthday.

“Dad, it’s a mess here. I’m left with the clothes on my back, and I don’t have much time to talk. I just called to make sure everybody was all right.”

“Your brother and I are doing all right here,” Buck’s dad said. “He’s still grieving the loss of his family, of course, but we’re all right.”

“Dad, the wheels are coming off this country. You’re not gonna really be all right until –“

Buck’s reference there to “this country” is, again, anachronistic. It has been well over a year in this story since “this country” ceased to exist. All countries (except Israel) were abolished to create the one-world government of the Antichrist.

But this conversation does not really occur in or apply to the world of this story. That’s not what it’s for. Buck and his dad talk as though they were two people living in our world — a world in which America still exists and no Rapture has convulsed the planet into chaos. They talk as though they share our world, rather than theirs, because this conversation is meant to contain a lesson — a model — for readers who live in our world and our context.

Buck and his father here are merely stand-ins. Buck represents the generic “saved” reader of the Left Behind series and his father represents that generic reader’s generic “unsaved” family members. This conversation is mainly just another of the many evangelistic marketing scripts sprinkled throughout these books. It’s part how-to and part pep-talk for readers, encouraging them to persist in “witnessing” to their unsaved relatives.

“Cameron, let’s not get into this again, OK? I know what you believe, and if it gives you comfort –”

“Dad! It gives me little comfort right now. It kills me that I was so late coming to the truth. I’ve already lost too many loved ones. I don’t want to lose you too.”

I suppose the “loved ones” referred to there means Bruce Barnes. (And, maybe, Dirk Burton?)

The important thing here is the lesson: Your unsaved relatives may not want to hear what you have to say. They may be dismissive, suggesting that your faith is just something that “gives you comfort.” You have to confront that, insisting that it’s not about comfort, but about the truth without which they will be lost.

His father chuckled, maddening Buck. “You’re not going to lose me, big boy. Nobody seems to want to even attack us out here. We feel a little neglected.”

“Dad! Millions are dying. Don’t be glib about this.”

Buck Williams had advance warning of the beginning of this war. Ex-president Fitzhugh told him when and where it would begin, and he knew from his prophecy studies that it would come to claim the lives of “a fourth of the earth.” Yet Buck didn’t bother sharing this warning with anyone else — not even his wife or father-in-law. And he has yet to lift a finger to rescue anyone from the impending carnage.

But he won’t tolerate his father’s gallows-humor. That would be “glib.”

Oddly, everything that follows this condemnation of glibness is, well, pretty glib.

“Dad! Millions are dying. Don’t be glib about this.”

“So, how’s that new wife of yours? Are we ever gonna get to meet her?”

“I don’t know, Dad. I don’t know exactly where she is right now, and I don’t know whether you’ll ever get the chance to meet her.”

“You ashamed of your own father?”

“It’s not that at all, Dad. I need to make sure she’s all right, and we’re going to have to try to get out that way somehow.”

It’s kind of clunky, but this bit about Buck’s dad wanting to meet Chloe seems like a reasonable human conversation. Or, rather, it would seem that way if it weren’t occurring in the context of World War III, and if the new wife in question were not, currently, stranded and perhaps dying in an auto-wreck in a war zone.

But that context can’t shape this conversation because that might interfere with its utility as an evangelistic script:

“Find a good church there, Dad. Find somebody who can explain to you what’s going on.”

“I can’t think of anybody more qualified than you, Cameron. And you’re just gonna have to let me ruminate on this myself.”

This scripted quality infects almost all of the dialogue in these books. Characters rarely seem to be in character, but seem, rather, to be dutifully reciting words given to them by the authors because those are the words they have been assigned.

I think this relates to another way in which the authors’ theology shapes these books. It’s not quite as direct as the effect of, for example, the fatalism that flows from Tim LaHaye’s idea of “prophecy,” but the persistently awful dialogue in these books, I believe, illustrates something about the authors’ view of God.

The authors’ understanding of God, I think, informs their approach to the godlike act of creating characters.

The parallel is obviously not precise, but every novelist or playwright is a creator who gives life to a cast of characters. When those characters are truly alive, they begin to speak and to choose and to act, and the writer’s job then is to race to keep up with them. Those characters will want to say things and to do things that the writer did not expect. They will be full of surprises. The writer gave them a voice but, having done so, that voice now belongs to them — to the characters and no longer wholly to the writer.

I’m reminded here of the lovely scene in the second creation story in the book of Genesis. In that story God does not seem to be either omnipresent or omniscient, God needs to check in with the creation and its creatures to see what they have been up to while God’s attention was elsewhere. God shapes the man and then breathes life into him — life which, having been given to the man, now belongs to him. And then:

Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

The Creator is eager to see — to find out, to learn — what this creature will say next. This creature has been given life and autonomy and the Creator does not know what he is going to decide to say. The Creator finds this exciting and delightful.

If you’ve ever tried to write dialogue then you may be able to relate to that excitement and delight. When it’s going well, writing dialogue seems much more like transcription than like composition. The characters start talking and all you can do is scramble to get it all down.

When writing dialogue is not going well, the characters just sit there, mute, inert and lifeless, and you are faced with the laborious task of putting words in their mouths. And all the while you’re struggling to do that, you know that the words you have chosen for them will never seem as true or as alive as the words they would have chosen for themselves. The more you work to control your characters — to determine what they say or what they choose — the less real they seem.

(I used to say that such attempts by the writer to dictate words and choices for characters was like treating them like puppets instead of people. But I recently watched the delightful documentary about muppeteer Kevin Clash, Being Elmo, and I’ve decided that is unfair to puppeteers and to puppets.)

For the story to seem real, the characters must be allowed to speak and to choose for themselves. If they are not allowed the freedom to speak and act as they want and need to do, then they will cease to seem like characters and become more like chess pieces in a game they do not understand.

This doesn’t mean that the novelist or playwright abandons all control over the story. The writer still gets to shape the entire world in which these characters exist — what happens to them and around them, the options and choices available to them. (Conductor voice: “Transfers at this station for endless tangential discussions of free-will and determinism. Hold on to your passes.”)

This is, broadly speaking, one way to gauge whether or not a story rings true. When the author presents the characters with choices and the characters choose, the reader or audience accepts it as real. If the author seems to be manipulating those choices, or if the choices seem out-of-character, then the whole affair seems hollow. In other words, when the author does not seem to have learned anything from the characters, then the reader or audience cannot learn anything from them either.

Jenkins’ dialogue rings false because his characters never seem to have any agency or autonomy. In this scene, neither Buck nor his dad is free to say what he needs to say given the events occurring around them. Neither of them is allowed to say what it seems they ought to want to say or to choose what it seems they ought to want to choose. They’re just going through the motions of their assigned roles, dutifully reciting the script written for them by someone else.

That mirrors the theological views of Jenkins’ co-author. Tim LaHaye’s strange brew of prophecy and predestination also denies any human-seeming agency or autonomy. In LaHaye’s world, we are all just wooden characters in a bad novel, chess-pieces in a game played by someone else.


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  • Jessica_R

    My Body Is a Cage 

    Thomas Williams looked, really looked, around his living room after the click then *hiss* of Buck hanging up. The place looked strange in the early evening desert light, like it wasn’t a home at all. Thomas felt a chill, “it looks like a tomb, or one those dioramas at museums,” he thought, “there should be a plaque, ‘this represents the typical living quarters of an early 21st century family…” He felt very tired, he didn’t know if he should try to save Cameron anymore. 

    The Silk Suit Man did his work well. Thomas didn’t realize how well until now. Cameron hadn’t hear a word he’d said. He had never stumbled from the script, the words the Silk Suit Man must have put in his ear. The stories didn’t lie, The Silk Suit Man smiled at you, shook your hand, and you started to go, you started to go until there was nothing left but your smile, and your smile was always pointed at the Silk Suit Man. 

    Thomas fixed a bowl of soup in the kitchen, he couldn’t give up on Cameron. He had let him go to be his mother’s boy, her pet, her hero that was the fancy big city reporter but he couldn’t leave him behind. Not with Andy in this condition. 

    Replaying the conversation in his mind, he tried to think if there was a moment where Cameron sounded like he was wavering, there wasn’t. 

    “…Cameron, son, you are working for a very evil man.” 

    “Dad, the wheels are coming off this country. You’re not gonna really be all right until-” 

    “There is no this country anymore, you know that, and there is no Carpthia either, that’s only a mask this Thing is wearing, you think you’re resistance fighters but he gave you that story, goddamnit, do you you think it’s strange you’re a resistance fighter who has a goddamn fucking penthouse!” 

    ““Dad! It gives me little comfort right now. It kills me that I was so late coming to the truth. I’ve already lost too many loved ones. I don’t want to lose you too.”

    “You already have, I’m so sorry Cameron, I wasn’t there for you like you needed, I know that now. I know you learned to replace affection with getting lots of awards. I know you were ripe pickings for that son of a bitch and it’s all my fault. I’m so sorry son, please, can you hear me at all?” 

    “Dad! Millions are dying. Don’t be glib about this.”

    And Thomas had laughed then, bitterly, and listened to his son natter on about salvation with a being more monstrous than the Silk Suit Man could ever hope to be.

    He walked to the old tool shed at the edge of the property, the bowl of soup sending wisps of steam into the lilac and rust colors streaking the sky. The figure inside the shed was hunched over a foil wrapped pile of radios and bit and bobs of what looked like old computers. Its face was turned up to the sky peeking through the window on the side of the structure. The man was dirty, a beard starting to sprout, and his eyes gleamed with a terrible urgency. 

    “Hi Andy.” No answer. 

    Thomas sighed, he’d heard Andy moving around late at night, and even spotted him walking out into the scrub fields a few days ago. But he hadn’t said more than a word to him in weeks, and he looked to be eaten even less than usual. Thomas put the bowl of soup down beside him. 

    “Eat up, it won’t do you any good to fall over from hunger son.” No answer, but the figure absently stirred the bowl with the spoon, it’s eyes never leaving the sky, the other hand clutched tight to the strange contraption. That was better than nothing Thomas decided, and he left, he’d come back with coffee around midnight. 

    He walked back the house feeling his mouth full of salt. A small breeze was winding its way around the back yard, it wrapped around the wind chime Clarissa, Andy’s wife, had made, making it strike a gentle *ping*. 

    Thomas looked at it and smiled, Clarissa made them for church fundraisers and the like, funny contraptions made out of old silverware and bits of broken glass polished smooth. An image came to him of his granddaughter Caitlin playing with it, laughing in delight as  a swat of her hand sent it singing and sparkling in the sunlight. 

    It was too much now. The night air turned colder and Thomas Williams buried his face in his hands and wept. 

  • The problem with having any scene where one of the Tribulation Saints tries to convert an unbelieving relative is that it comes more than a whole book too late. At the start of the first book the world already saw God almost literally stretch out his hand and knock the combined military might of Russia and Ethiopia(!) out of the sky.  Shortly thereafter, all the RTCs, together with every single child, disappeared without a trace.  It’s hard to imagine a more blatant, heavy-handed, clear-cut  example of divine intervention.  There shouldn’t be any unbelievers left.

    And yet the members of the TF, in their attempts to convert others, never seem to bring this up.  Those items have already been crossed off the checklist; they’re no longer relevant. 

  • Rupaul

    @flat, Borges may be right about heaven, but just think of where they have to read books like these! A Hellish library of nothing but used copies of Left Behind volumes (and a copy of Heaven is For Real, I suppose, just to torment the damned that extra bit.)

  • MaryKaye

    My gaming group once needed to know in advance how a particular decision point in a roleplaying game would go.  We needed to know this really badly, so we reached an agreement to play out ten close variants of the scene in question, “off the record,” and look at the range of outcomes.

    They looked all right.  So we went ahead with the actual scene, which seemed to me much in the middle of the ten possibilities we’d examined–

    And Azelian–of all people, the most quiet member of the party–stood up and said, “THIS is why we’re being asked to do what we’re being asked to do, and it will cost every one of us our souls.  I’m not going.”

    Much consternation ensued.  We got it straightened out eventually, but not back on the intended track–once the other characters heard that it was too difficult to retcon it away.  It was just too obvious that Azelian was right, and it *would* cost every one of them their souls.

    I was Azelian’s player.  I don’t know why he didn’t have that insight on the previous 10 iterations.  He just opened his mouth and it all came out. Experience suggests that if I’d tried to suppress it, I would not have been able to play Azelian in a satisfactory way anymore–once you cut off the spontaneous flow of dialog, as Fred said, it all goes dry and dead.

    I do know that not everyone writes, or roleplays, this way–there are perfectly good writers who invent everything their characters say and are baffled by the “it’s what he wanted to say” explanations.  But if you *are* someone who writes that way, you will kill your story by self-censoring it.  I think that’s Jenkins’ problem.  He does have that internal what-the-character-would-do viewpoint–at least, he says he does in an interview.  But I think having to stick to the script has killed these characters dead for him.  If they were still alive, they would go off course just like Azelian did.  I suspect they would be ranting against God here.  God’s plan is endangering Chloe’s life, after all.  It’s taken Buck Sr.’s grandchildren.  Allowed “real” reactions the characters might react quite badly to this.  That’s not okay, so Jenkins has throttled them.  But then of course they don’t sound right–they’re zombies.

  • I know I would; but to be fair I live in a kinda odd place (middle of IL, in a small town; but I am better educated than typical for the area) – so sometimes I sound a bit redneck and then I pull out a polysyllabic or semi-archaic word without breaking stride.

    Not that I think Jenkins actually had people like me in mind in writing dialogue like that; merely that there are at least some people who’d deliver that kind of sentence (‘x’)

  • GeniusLemur

     Anybody else suspecting they were planning on another 10 years’ worth of prequels, but poor sales numbers or something made them end the series early?

  • GeniusLemur

    So Buck’s all worldly and stuff, so he misses mom’s death? That’s a pretty stock method of showing it, but they apparently used this well-worn trope correctly, so that’s something positive.

  • Kiba

    It’s a personal call — a personal call to someone other than the wife who is, at this moment, possibly injured on some unknown highway.

    To be perfectly honest this doesn’t surprise me. I really wasn’t expecting him to call Chloe anyway. Now, if it had been Ray-ray in the car….

  • GeniusLemur

    But writers who aren’t as appallingly bad as Jenkins do things like write series bibles, make broad outlines, cast lists, character sketches, and notes of what to cover in this chapter. Even at 20 pages a day, no breaks, there’s STILL no excuse for it to be this one-sixteenth-assed.

  • Vermic

    “Find a good church there, Dad. Find somebody who can explain to you what’s going on.”

    It would serve Buck right if his dad, following his extremely vague advice, walks right into the nearest EBOWF temple.

  • Kiba

    It would serve Buck right if his dad, following his extremely vague advice, walks right into the nearest EBOWF temple.

    I thought at this point in the story that the only churches allowed are EBOWF ones. But considering New Hope is still up and running I could be wrong, or it could be another instance of the authors forgetting their own plot. 

  • Aaron Boyden

    I believe it’s pretty well established that sociopathy is highly heritable.  Though admittedly that doesn’t actually show it has a genetic component; the explanation that sociopaths make terrible parents is a plausible alternative.

  • banancat

     “Perhaps sociopathy has a genetic component!”

    As someone with a sociopathic father, I certainly hope not.  I wonder, do sociopaths realize what they are?

  • The Lodger

    What? No Frank Peretti? No Brad Thor?

  • Magic_Cracker

    If you’re worried about being a sociopath, it probably means that you aren’t one.

  • Tapetum

     That’s great! It could also well apply to me. My kids’ comment about me is “Mom puts the quip is sesquipedalian.” Which says something about my normal speech styles – that both of my kids (12 & 14) know the word ‘sesquipedalian’ and have for years.

    It bothered me for a long time (not being able to have casual conversations without sounding like I ate a thesaurus), but by now I’ve pretty much decided that it’s how I am, and I might as well enjoy the ride.

  •  “Mom puts the quip is sesquipedalian” is wonderful.

    The somewhat-less-purely-funny story I tell along these lines involves being in rehab after my stroke, where I was suffering from intermittent aphasia, and one day my speech therapist brought in an intern who explained to me that they were going to show me some pictures and ask me to name the thing in the picture.

    That was a good-speech day, and so what came out of my mouth was “Excellent. New instruments are cool, they turn up lexical gaps I hadn’t been previously aware of.” Followed by a long pause. Followed by “Normal people don’t say ‘lexical gaps,’ do they?”

  • banancat

    But that trope is so incredibly cliche, it probably would have improved it to use it incorrectly.

  • banancat

     Yeah, yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m not one, but I have OCD so I do worry about it sometimes.

  • B

    I was at a conference for the Society for Neuroscience a once when it was in Atlanta next to the aquarium.  So I (along with many other conference-goers) played hookey one day to visit the aquarium.  I was at the back of the crowd watching some demonstration at the Beluga whale when someone at the front asked, “What are those striations on it’s head?”

    Even before I saw the conference giveaway totebag I figured the questioner had to be from the conference based on the use of the word “striation” in everyday conversation.

  • Elizabby

    >>Ellenjay started out with a major strategic planning error:  Telling an epic story of literally Cosmic scope entirely from the POVs of the two Author Self-Inserts.  This requires the two ASIs to always be at the center of every plot Event…

    Are you sure they aren’t Author Self-Substitutes? They read like ASSes to me.

    But I think the real reason that Buck isn’t concerned about Chloe is that Jenkins knows she isn’t dead, so there’s nothing for anyone to worry about is there? (I work with people with autism, so I’m used to hearing this POV.)

  • GeniusLemur

    Twilight does that too. Bella keeps passing judgement on people after about 2 seconds, and is always right. It’s like she has a direct line to the author or something.

  • Verna Zee Sensible Shoes Confrontation Countdown: 281 pages

  • Alicia

     The Enigma Babylon One World Faith is fairly tolerant and benign — I think the authors intended to be a parody of ecumenism and possibly even Unitarian Universalists (though I think it’s really only the long name that makes me think that).

    After Carpathia’s assassination and resurrection, it warps into “Carpathianism”, which is the more traditional Evil Emperor Demands Worship religion. Carpathianism is much more overtly Satanic (its priests even receive magical powers from Carpathia, almost like in Dungeons and Dragons when gods grant “spells” to their followers) and other religions are outlawed.

    My theory is that the intent of the EBOWF –> Carpathianism evolution in the story was to imply that ecumenism and religious pluralism is intended to weaken mainstream religions to pave the way for state-backed devil worship.

  •  Inspired by Fred, I’ve been slogging through Twilight on my blog. (I’m not sure which experience is more insufferable.) I just wrote about Bella’s having a direct line to the author in my last entry (to be posted tomorrow). She knows things she couldn’t possibly know because Stephenie Meyer knows, and Meyer can’t separate herself from her self-insertion.

    Philip K. Dick wrote two versions of himself into VALIS, and they still came across as characters rather than author avatars.

  • And Buck’s brother Jeff must be the only one in the series who spends 18 months in grief over the disappearance of loved ones. None of the other characters seems to spend more than a few minutes.

    In the prequels, Jeff comes across as one of the very few genuinely likeable characters in the series.  As usual, this is entirely an accident on Jenkins’ part, as I’m sure we’re supposed to see Jeff as Buck does: first as a stick-in-the-mud, then as a sinful unsaved stick-in-the-mud.

  • Either Buck has called his parents multiple times off-screen – instead of apparently completly forgetting them until now – and managed to piss them off; or they have a massive history of misunderstanding and problems and anger. But that would have lead to a different attitude on Bucks side and made the whole talk different.

    I’m pretty sure that the missing piece of that puzzle is that Buck is Newly Christian, and because he is Newly Christian, God has forgiven all his sins.  And because God has forgiven them, Buck’s more than a little surprised that all of the people in his life haven’t immediately done the same.

    In Soon, the “hero,” Paul Stepola/Apostle, spends ten years emotionally abusing and serially cheating on his wife.  Then, he gets saved.  (Of course he was an atheist when he cheated and abused.  Because that’s normal for atheists.)  After he gets himself saved, he seems genuinely shocked that his wife doesn’t immediately start trusting the “new” Paul.  Doesn’t she see how he’s a completely different person now, now that he has Jesus on his heart?  Doesn’t she know that he was magically imbued with morals and would never, never cheat again, even though he really, really wants to?

    Nope, she somehow keeps acting like their shared history matters and like people don’t change overnight.  That shrewish harpy bitch.

    (Oh, did I mention that he keeps his conversion a secret?)

    Anyway, that’s the problem with this conversation, IMHO.  Everything is different for Buck now that he is Saved (or so he says), and he just assumes that everyone else will immediately get with his new program. 

    Saved = Forgive and Forget.

    Like, now.

  • “Mom puts the quip is sesquipedalian.”

    I can’t wait to read that book!

  • Ken

    I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.   – Jorge Luis Borges

    The twist to this one is that he’s right, except it’s his own Library of Babel. Every book that was ever, will ever, or could ever be written is there, but mixed in with the astronomically-greater number of books containing every possible sequence of letters.

    Cue Rod Serling: “Jorge Luis Borges learned, too late, that a library can be the opposite of paradise – in The Twilight Zone.”

  • Loquat

    Imagine my face when I got home from my job at a call center and saw this post title. 

    It’s especially funny to me because our scripts at work aren’t actually that useful either, and frequently get ignored. In part that’s because we’re the number posted on the company’s health insurance ads, so lots of our calls are people asking about the details of the insurance plans, which you really can’t script for at all, but even the simple and easily scripted parts like “send out an information packet” and “schedule a meeting with a salesperson” tend to have the script ignored for the simple reason that the script is written in annoying corporate-speak. Even the basic phrase “how may I help you?” is supposed to be excised from our vocabularies and replaced with something less human, like “what prompted your call today?” which is unnatural to say and frequently gets bad reactions from callers. The theory apparently is that our callers get confused and forget why they’re calling at some point between when they dial our number and when they get on the line with a live person, and will ramble on about unnecessary things if not prodded to remember, and supposedly “how may I help you” invites them to ramble while “what prompted your call” prods them to remember. I think it’s bull, but middle management gets an idea in their heads and there’s no telling them otherwise.

    Also, one of my co-workers is an older working-class man whom I can easily envision saying “gonna” and “ruminate” in the same sentence. 

  • Or, you know, you could just have him be blind, and Heaven’s fresh out of Braille editions and books-on-tape, but we have this lovely manuscript on humour with the strangest ink….

  • Makabit

    A great analogy, come to think of it, is the Soviet propaganda flicks I’ve seen getting posted to Youtube. They had a core of legitimate criticism, but overlaid was a totally bizarre and distorted view of how the US actually functioned as a society.

    That, right there, IS a great analogy, and I would add also the vision of US society I sometimes see in criticism from Iranian officials, or pompous people trying to explain to their dim fellow Americans how Islamic fundamentalists must view us and our nekkid women and sex abuse scandals.

    In all cases there is an assumption that once you’ve heard the truth about your society and beliefs as interpreted by an outsider with an agenda, you will have to accept their assessment and conclusions, because they are obviously true, and adopt them for yourself. If you decline to do this, you’re just stubborn or evil.

    I must say that, as a total outsider myself, but one who has been evangelized to by an off assortment of strangers, evangelicals would do well to mimic the sophistication of the Jesuits. Having been the target of a Jesuit hard-sell (over academics, not religion), perfectly geared to the audience, and designed to make us feel smart, understood and valuable, I can’t help but compare them to the fervent but really unsophisticated people who have urged Jesus on me in different settings.

    Sample conversation: “But don’t you feel lost and alone without a personal connection to God?”

    “I have a personal connection to God, so no.”

    “But don’t you want a personal connection to God?”

    “I don’t feel I’m lacking one.”


  • Chrisb

    When you’re talking about the characters behaving in uncontemplated ways, there are two must reads.  One is Robert Louis Stevenson’s riff on his own Treasure Island, at;
    “After the 32nd chapter of Treasure Island, two of the
    puppets strolled out to have a pipe before business should begin
    again, and met in an open place not far from the story…..”
    It covers the theology admirably;
    ““Were you never taught your catechism?” said the
    Captain.  “Don’t you know there’s such a
    thing as an Author?”
    “Such a thing as a Author?” returned John,
    derisively.  “And who better’n me?  And the
    p’int is, if the Author made you, he made Long John, and he
    made Hands, and Pew, and George Merry—not that George is up
    to much, for he’s little more’n a name; and he made
    Flint, what there is of him; and he made this here mutiny, you
    keep such a work about; and he had Tom Redruth shot;
    and—well, if that’s a Author, give me Pew!””

    and on the other side, there’s Max Beerbohm’s Savonarola Brown, from Seven Men (; 
    “After the entry of Savonarola,
    he never told me what characters were appearing. ‘All sorts of people
    appear,’ he would say rather helplessly. ‘They insist. I can’t prevent
    them.’ I used to say it must be great fun to be a creative artist; but
    at this he always shook his head: ‘I don’t create. THEY do. Savonarola
    especially, of course. I just look on and record. I never know what’s
    going to happen next.'”


  • Lori


    Even the basic phrase “how may I help you?” is supposed to be excised
    from our vocabularies and replaced with something less human, like “what
    prompted your call today?” which is unnatural to say and frequently
    gets bad reactions from callers. The theory apparently is that our
    callers get confused and forget why they’re calling at some point
    between when they dial our number and when they get on the line with a
    live person, and will ramble on about unnecessary things if not prodded
    to remember, and supposedly “how may I help you” invites them to ramble
    while “what prompted your call” prods them to remember.  

    Really? I would have assumed that it was a form of market research. What thing in particular actually prompted the person to pick up the phone and call you instead of thinking about it, but not actually doing it, or calling some other company or some other suboptimal (from your bosses’ POV) thing they could have done. The idea that it will make them get to the point sooner is odd.

  • GDwarf


    Imagine my face when I got home from my job at a call center and saw this post title.

    Call centres have to be some of the worst-managed places to work. I’ve not worked in one, but I know people who have and, of course, have had the joy of trying to get decent tech support out of them.

    Apparently it’s common for washroom trips to be unpaid, and for workers to have to wear business formal. Both of which boggle my mind. I do front-line tech support for part of the local government, and I’m one of the dressier people. I wear business casual.

    There are, apparently a few main problems:

    First: Call centres universally rate representatives on minutes/call and sales/call (even tech support ones) which means that actually helping the customer is third, at best.

    Second: Many call centres spend roughly $0.02/employee on training, don’t pay high enough rates to attract experts in their areas, and often cover a variety of products and services. The idea behind the scripts is that they can replace training: Who needs to learn things when the computer can tell it to you? Of course, the scripts often seem to be written by people who don’t know anything either.

    Third: Customers hate call centres. This makes them aggressive and disinclined to follow directions. Which means the scripts keep getting dumbed-down because clearly the people on the other end of the phone can’t follow basic instructions, which just makes them madder. Repeat.

    Fourth: Management at call centres tends to be the sort of people who see nothing wrong with having bathroom breaks be unpaid. This does little for employee morale, and makes the odds of improvement negative.

    Fifth: Some customers just are idiots. This means the scripts get further dumbed down.

    Sixth: Some call centre workers are idiots. This means that relying on them to use their judgment can be dicey. The obvious solution of just not hiring those people is apparently not an option.

    Seventh: The combinations of 1, 2, 4 and 6 has somehow resulted in the universal “wisdom” that the script is god. The purpose of call centre employees is, apparently, simply to act as a voicemail system that can only say pre-set things in response to what the customer says.

    The obvious solution, to me, is to do a few things:
    1. If management insists on no deviation from the script, then just set up a website for troubleshooting. Have users go through links that describe their problems and offer the solutions the script would.

    2. Have the call centre be used for people whose problem cannot be solved by the website. This means that there’s likely no easy pre-canned response, so workers get to use their initiative.

    3. Rate workers on customer satisfaction, not call times.

    4. Train the workers to they can actually solve problems. It’s slightly more expensive than the script, but your customers will appreciate it much more.

  • Loquat

    Well, market research is a slightly different topic. The company does in fact want us to ask the callers what ads or other information may have particularly motivated them to call in, but that has nothing to do with replacing “how may I help you”. We’ve been told by multiple management types that “how may I help you” is BAD and makes the caller think they should ramble about unrelated things. The concept of possibly losing customers due to the awful “what prompted your call” doesn’t seem to have registered, probably because most of the telephone workers ignore it and stick with “how may I help you”.

  • Dmoore970

    The purpose of call centre employees is, apparently, simply to act as a voicemail system that can only say pre-set things in response to what the customer says.

    Yeah, I’ve noticed that.  After a maddening runaround in the voice mail trying to get to a live human being, it turns out that live human being is someone with so little autonomy and discretion as to be the functional equivalent of the voice mail system.  The goal seems to be to keep you away from someone who actually knows enough to help.

  • Tybult

    Bzzzt. Bzzzzt
    “Hello? Who is this?””Buck! Thank God! I was hoping Verna would know -“”Who is this?””Chloe! Your wife! Listen, you have to come get me, I’m -“”Oooh, hey, I am actually waiting for a call from someone else. I guess I can tell you, me and Chaim are going tie shopping this afternoon.””Buck!””Can I call you back at this number?””Listen to me, I made it out of the crash okay, but something came and took the cop, and now I’m hiding -“”Oh! We’ll pick you up some Oregano’s if you want, we’re going there for lunch.””Cameron, please just listen! These aren’t regular bombs they’re dropping, they’re doing something to the way the world works.””Yeah. Hey, I’ve been kicking around an idea, no rush on it, but I think there’s a loophole in our lease where we can get bamboo flooring put in. Think about it.””Buck, I cannot tell if you are joking with me.””All right, Chaim’s calling me, I have to go.””Cameron, you asshole! God damn you straight to -“”Love you, bubbsy.”click(I’m sure this reads as Buck being a deliberate asshole, but I’m drawing from a couple of people I’ve met recently, who only ever seem to hear the first sentence I say in a given conversation. AFAICT, they’re not doing it deliberately. It’s really quite remarkable.)

  • Tybult

    Also, as far as “ruminate” goes, I use words like that in conversation, mixed in with redneck-isms that I picked up while growing up in Bumfuck Colorado.

    Some people like talking to me, some people can’t stand it.

  • Loquat

    My call center has only some of these problems, largely because our field is Medicare health insurance plans, which are subject to heavy government regulation largely aimed at protecting customers. 

    We’re not rated on sales at all, and while the management encourages us to keep our average call time down, that’s mainly to avoid building up backlogs of new callers waiting on hold. The main things we’re rated on are (a) providing complete and accurate information, (b) quickly and accurately setting up the meetings, etc, that callers request, and (c) gathering all the caller’s contact information. Also, since the government subsidizes these plans and varies the subsidy based on each plan’s rating, which includes the customer service rating, the company has a direct financial incentive to value customer service.

    We also do have to get real training, since we have to be able to explain not only the plans our company sells, but also various Medicare rules affecting when people can and cannot get them. Government workers occasionally call to administer pop quizzes, and factor the results into the aforementioned rating. My group’s training was indeed terrible, but I think that’s more because the company is disorganized as a rule – they scheduled more than enough paid training time for everyone to be decently trained, but the company’s massive organization fails meant very little of that time was used well. 

    Our main problems, from your list, are the low wages, the unpaid bathroom breaks, and the idiots on staff – and the idiots aren’t going away, since the company really needs a whole lot of people to do this job every fall and will pretty much take anyone with enough brainpower to pass the state’s insurance agent exam.

  • MotherDemeter

    i just came to say (first time commenting i believe) that I found your deconstruction a week or so ago and read through all 53 pages of posts and have finally caught up. hooray me!
    But honestly it is a little sad also because I keep thinking i can read what comes next.  

    I thought I read the Left Behind books but I realize now that I read the Left Behind Kids version.  I think they were better than this, if only because it dealt with a more personal and frightening situation of being 13-17 and suddenly alone and in the apocalypse.  It felt scarier to read anyway, though I was about 14 when I read them.   

  • Another factor, as Mosue over here has noted is that L&J employed a third person as a ghostwriter when they were grinding out the LB Kids books. Apparently the third person actually sort of knows how to write teenagers semi believably. :)

  • Welcome, and please do not kill us with sheep :)

  • Kiba

    Apparently it’s common for washroom trips to be unpaid, and for workers to have to wear business formal.

    Oh man. My first ever real job was working at an answering service (they did other things too, like taking phone orders and after hours “tech support” for a few companies) back in the early 90s. They made us do the whole clocking out thing whenever we had to run to the toilet. The only time they made us dress business formal though was if a perspective client was going to be touring the place.

    Hated that job so much. One of the rules was to never, ever tell a caller that you were part of an answering service. I got cussed out sooooo many times because I couldn’t give callers the information they wanted because it wasn’t included in the script* that would pop up on my screen and since I didn’t work for the actual company had no way of getting the information they needed.  

    *I never knew who I was answering for until the call came through to my terminal and the info came up on my screen. 

    Think the only fun part was when they finally installed the manager eavesdropping thing on the system I was on. I could always tell when they had patched into my call because the sound would change in my headset. I told them this but they said it wasn’t possible. One day I was taking a call and I heard them patch in to it and, because I’m a bastard, I told the caller to please repeat what they had said since my manager was listening in on the call and I missed it. All the while ginning evilly in their direction. After that I would just wave at them every time they started listening in on my calls. 

  • Mrs Grimble

     Advice I’ve dispensed on more than one occasion:
    “Next time he rings up and tells you he can’t live without you – ask him why he isn’t dead yet.”

  • GeniusLemur

     For a real writer, that might have improved it. Jenkins is so amazingly bad, using worn-out cliches right is the best we can hope for. Look what he did with the well-worn “crusading reporter” bit.

  • I had a particularly frustrating experience with IBM phone support once, dealing with a person who couldn’t have passed a Turing test.(*) Never occurred to me that in some places that might’ve been intentional.

    (*)I was dealing with a person who couldn’t believe that I was actually asking about an IBM product because it wasn’t in the script. Am I really sure that IBM CSet/2 development environment for OS/2 is an IBM product? Yes. Yes I am. Even though it isn’t a database or operating system. Really. (If you’ve ever wondered why Windows beat IBM in the PC OS wars, IBM’s inability to realize that they actually sold one is a big reason.)

  • veejayem

    I thought that scene in Contagion seemed very true to life and that Matt Damon played it to perfection.

    I was teaching in central London at the time of the 7/7 bombings. The very minute ~ no exagerration ~ my sister heard what had happened she went all out trying to reach me and check I was all right. She knew my travelling routine, knew that I could have been at the centre of one of the attacks, knew that further attacks were feared. The mobile network had collapsed, landlines in the affected area were jammed solid. Finally she went online, found the public copy of my school’s OFSTED inspection report and used the fax number to send a message. I think she would have driven straight from Suffolk to London if all else had failed.

    I bet there are a lot of New Yorkers who have similar stories of 9/11. That is how people behave when they fear for those they love.

  • So, first off, Skewed Slightly to the Left.  Second, Cameron hasn’t heard from Chloe yet because he’s been busy doing his job, which left him on the run because his job involved telling the truth about Nicolae.  Third, I misremembered a while back, and as a result Cameron has a sister instead of a brother.  And for those who have forgotten, Verna, Alice and Cameron are at New Hope following the decision to try to use the underground network of churches and shelters as a way to get the word out about the attacks.  And Chloe is trying to get a blackmarket contact who had the misfortune of being caught in the middle of World War III, to safety.  Also I seem to be hung up on J names, Jack, Jane, Jason who knows what else.

    Cameron gave the video camera to Verna, “I got video of the bomb dropping, probably not good video, but…”
    “Thanks,” the sincerity of the word helped pull Cameron up a bit.  He felt somewhat less useless, and that made a lot of difference. “It looks like we can still reach the internet, so I’ll see if I can get this out there.”

    “How are things going?” Cameron asked.

    “Good, considering, we’ve managed to hook up a lot of our staff with Loretta’s safe-houses and use her communications network to get the word out.  All ten cities got warning.”  Verna sighed, “It probably wasn’t enough warning but…”

    Now it was Cameron’s turn to try to help Verna.  He gently placed a hand on each of her shoulders and looked her in the eyes, “Hey, we do what we can.  No one can expect more and… and focus on the people who wouldn’t have made it without your work not… not the rest.”

    “Thanks, Cam.”  They separated.  “I’ve got more work to do.”

    Cameron didn’t.  He wasn’t sure what to do.  He knew what he wanted to do, which was find Chloe.  He knew what he should do, which was find a way to do his job so the burden didn’t fall on Verna, Loretta, and the rest.  And between those two things he wasn’t sure where to go.

    Then Jane ran up to him, “I’ve been looking all over for you; you’ve got a call from your dad.”

    She handed Cameron his cellphone.

    As soon as he had it he asked, “How are you holding up?”

    “I’m fine.  The war’s not here.  How are you?  I’ve been trying to call you for hours, your apartment  your office, your cellphone.  I didn’t know about this number until your sister got your voicemail.”

    “Sorry about that, it’s technically a work phone.  What about sis, is she ok?”

    “She’s fine.  How are you?  We heard the news about New York.”

    “I’m in Chicago.”

    “We heard the news about Chicago.”

    “I’m in a bomb shelter in Chicago.  I’m as safe as I can be considering the circumstances.”

    “What about your wife?  We haven’t even met her yet.”

    “I don’t know.”  Cameron wanted to cry, and to scream.  “I’m about to try to find out so I have to let you go, but before I do… I’m kind of an enemy of the state at this point and I hope that doesn’t have any fallout for you, but if it does… You and sis be careful, ok?  Keep safe.”

    “You too.  I love you Cam.”

    “I love you, and tell sis I love her too.”

    “I will do.”

    “Got to go, goodbye.”


    Jane was still around, so Cameron asked her, “How do I contact one of the other shelters?”  As she was getting him to New Hope’s communications equipment Cameron remembered why Jane had had his cellphone in the first place, “Is Jack ok?”

    “Yeah, he’s fine.  He wasn’t that far from the nearest shelter.”

    Cameron was able to reach Chloe’s shelter but when he asked for her he was passed off to Chloe’s assistant Jason who said, “I don’t know where she is sir.”

    “What the hell do you mean-” Cameron stopped himself from shouting.  “Sorry.  And it’s Cameron, not ‘sir’.”

    “She went out to meet a contact and hasn’t come back.”

    “Do you know where?”

    “I think so, she left her phone here and-”

    “Thanks Jason, just tell me where.”

    “Chloe’s outside.  I’m going to look for her.”

    Loretta and Verna were both speechless for a moment.  Then Loretta said, “We’re getting ready to send out search and rescue teams, let me send one with you.”

    “They’d have a different goal, I’d just slow them down.  I feel bad about taking one person away from the work here, I’d not going to compromise a whole team.”

    Loretta handed Cameron something and explained, “Geiger counter.”

    Verna said, “Good luck.”

  • Gaaaaaaaaaah. Why couldn’t L&J have written stuff like that?!

    I regret there is but one “Like” I can provide for your post. Buck looking for Chloe on his lonesome because he can’t get hold of her is a way better idea than canon Buck bullying his car dealer into giving him the phone number for his truck.

    And speaking of which, if Buck can get that number, why can’t Nicolae or a minion? If they wanted to totally creep Buck out they could cal him and say, “We know you have a truck purchased on a GC credit card. You have 24 hours to return it or reimburse us or otherwise justify an expense that, under your old statutes, constitutes grand larceny and/or theft and/or fraud.

    “Oh, and we know you’re in Mount Prospect as we speak, and you’re turning left into your church. Do try to avoid thinking you can evade your boss.”