LBCF, No. 178: ‘What a world, what a world’

Originally posted September 12, 2008.

Read this entire series, for free, via the convenient Left Behind Index. This post is also part of the ebook collection The Anti-Christ Handbook: Volume 1, available on Amazon for just $2.99. After abolishing ICE, abolish the horse it rode in on. Volume 2 of The Anti-Christ Handbook, completing all the posts on the first Left Behind book, is also now available.

Left Behind, pp. 466-467

The penultimate scene begins with four sentences crying out for rewriting:

By the time Stanton Bailey stormed into Buck’s office an hour later, Buck realized he was up against a force with which he could not compete. The record of his having been at that meeting had been erased, including from the minds of everyone in the room. He knew Steve wasn’t faking it. He honestly believed Buck had not been there.

This force with which he could not compete (“he” being Buck, not Steve) is also something sense of which the reader cannot make. We assume that the erasing of all traces of Buck’s presence was something Nicolae did, but why would he do that? He invited Buck to the meeting and now he seems to have gone to great lengths to make it seem like Buck was never there. What’s the point of that? What’s Nicolae’s — or the authors’ — logic here?

And more to the point, why isn’t Buck wondering why Nicolae did this? If Buck has just been singled out by Nicolae, then it would seem like he’s just made a very powerful enemy and that it’s probably time to go back into hiding. Or it could be that Carpathia cast some kind of generalized magic spell designed to eliminate every trace of any doubter who might have been in the room — in which case Buck is in imminent danger of being exposed as an RTC and an enemy of the Antichrist and thus, again, going into hiding would seem wise. Yet apart from the precaution of worrying that his office phone might not be “safe,” Buck doesn’t seem particularly worried that he’s now on Page 1 of the global emperor’s enemies list.

The power Carpathia held over these people knew no limits. If Buck had needed any proof that his own faith was real and that God was now in his life, he had it. Had he not received Christ before entering that room, he was convinced he would be just another of Carpathia’s puppets.

Again, it might make sense for someone like Bruce Barnes to be using phrases like “God was now in his life” or “received Christ,” but Buck has been a born-again Christian for just a few hours, during which time he hasn’t interacted with any others of his new kind. That makes it very strange for him to be so fluent in the peculiar (and revealing) idioms of the subculture.

Bailey was not in a discussing mood, so Buck let the old man talk, not trying to defend himself.

Stanton Bailey explains that he’s tracked down everyone he could find who’d been in the meeting and that none of them remembers seeing Buck in the room. Bailey, it turns out, is a much more thorough journalist and investigator than Buck has ever been. He’s also a much better boss than Buck deserves, delivering an avuncular dressing-down that conveys more disappointment than anger. For his part, Buck displays the same sense of entitlement that he did before his instant sanctification:

“This is unacceptable and unforgivable, Cameron. I can’t have you as my executive editor.”

“I’ll gladly go back to senior writer,” Buck said.

“Can’t go along with that either, pal, I want you out of New York. I’m going to put you in the Chicago bureau.”

“I’ll be happy to run that for you.”

Bailey shook his head. “You don’t get it, do you, Cameron? I don’t trust you. I should fire you. But I know you’d just wind up with somebody else. … If you tried to jump to the competition, I’d have to tell them about this stunt. …”

“… Someday I want you to come clean with me, son. That was the sorriest excuse for news gathering I’ve ever seen, and by one of the best in the business.”

So Bailey here does not seem to have been the victim of Nicolae’s mojo — he’s not “just another of Carpathia’s puppets.” And he openly invites Buck to “come clean with me.” Yet Buck, who is sitting at the very computer on which he has just typed his full account of what really happened at the meeting, decides not to share that account with his mentor. Unlike every other story Buck was working on in this book, this one actually got written, but he still never turned it in.

I suppose you could argue that hearing the truth might put Bailey in danger — that Buck is somehow protecting his old boss by not telling him about the menace that Carpathia poses to the world. Or maybe he just doesn’t care what happens to Bailey, so he doesn’t give any thought to whether or not the old guy deserves to hear the truth.

On “The Leftovers,” 2 percent of the world’s population vanishes and everything changes for everyone who is left. In “Left Behind,” 40 percent of the world’s population vanishes and nothing at all changes for anyone who is left.

It’s awfully convenient that of all the places he could’ve been demoted to, Buck is being sent to the office nearest his new girlfriend and Tribulation Force HQ. That’s one big advantage to writing Christian brand genre fiction — convenient coincidences can be chalked up to divine providence rather than to hackneyed plot devices.

Bailey tells Buck he’s getting demoted all the way down to the bottom rung:

“You’re going to be a staff writer out of Chicago, working for the woman who was Lucinda’s assistant there. …

Yes, the one with the “sensible shoes.”

” … I’m calling her today to give her the news. It’ll mean a whopping cut in pay, especially considering what you would’ve gotten with the promotion. You take a few days off, get your things in order here, get that apartment sublet, and find yourself a place in Chicago.”

And there it is. Yet another offhand reminder that the post-Event world portrayed in Left Behind is exactly the same as the pre-Event world. The disappearance of 2 billion people — including every child on the planet — hasn’t changed anything at all.

This particular instance might seem like a minor detail, but world-building is all about getting the details right. LaHaye and Jenkins have no interest in the details because they have no interest at all in world-building.

Subletting an apartment in Manhattan ought to be a different thing in this post-Event world with two-thirds the population it had only eight days before. “Find yourself a place in Chicago” ought to be a very different thing, but instead, here’s how this is described early in the next book in the series:

Buck Williams had spent the day buying a car — something he hadn’t needed in Manhattan — and hunting for an apartment. He found a beautiful condo, at a place that advertised already-installed phones …

Apart from the weird telephonophilia, the world in which Buck buys a car and rents a condo seems indistinguishable from this world. But it’s not supposed to be anything like this world. It’s supposed to be the traumatized, mystified world of the immediate aftermath of the Event. Auto sales and real estate would not work the same in that world as they do in this one.

Why doesn’t Buck just give his friend Bruce Barnes a call? Bruce has a database of the members of New Hope Village Church. Cross off his name and Loretta’s and this becomes a list of newly vacant houses in the area. They come furnished — fully furnished, with already installed phones and also clothes in the closets, food in the pantry and two cars in the driveway. Buck could have his pick of any of those.

But wait, how would that work? Could Buck just slide in there and pick up the mortgage payments where the departed RTC family left off? The banks holding all those mortgages would have to be pleased if people like Buck stepped in to continue payments, but in most cases nobody would be there to do that. What would happen to all those homes? Foreclosure? Escheat? What about all those other now-unclaimed assets — the stocks, insurance policies and bank accounts that once belonged to the disappeared?

Once we start asking questions like that, alps on alps arise.* The economic impact of the Event would seem to be devastating. It’s hard to see any way that the world wouldn’t be plunged into a global depression that would make the 1930s look like a Golden Age. Tens of thousands of businesses — those that catered to children and parents — would be wiped out entirely, overnight. But every remaining business would find itself with a massive surplus of inventory and production capacity. Despite the millions of instant job vacancies from disappeared employees, there would still need to be massive layoffs as global demand drops by 30 percent or more. All those vacant homes point to all the mortgages, car loans and credit card debts that would suddenly be in default. So now the banks are failing — along with the insurance companies, and …

Yeah. It wouldn’t be good.

But reading about it should have been interesting.

The consequences of the Event are so far-reaching and pervasive that this book could have been successful if it had consisted of almost nothing but world-building. With a premise like this you could get away with minimal plot and character development and just give readers a tour of the brave new post-Event world. Instead of “get that apartment sublet, and find yourself a place in Chicago,” give me a tangential chapter walking me through the effects of the Event on housing and real estate and I’d eat it up. I’d read that book even if it didn’t bother with narrative at all — even if all it did was list, in no particular order, the various consequences that flow from the premise: Our world, and then in the next instant our world without children.

But L&J are too lazy and incurious to get into anything like that. It’s not that their exploration of this is unsatisfyingly meager, it’s that it doesn’t exist. The authors do not recognize at all that the post-Event world is a new and different place. The book offers a cursory 36 hours of inconsistent inconvenience (a helicopter flight for Rayford, a charter plane for Buck, no trouble at all for Chloe coming back from California) and the rare occasional mention of sadness over Irene and Egg’s absence, but then everyone goes back to work and everything goes back to normal. Back to pre-Event normal. Once they get that parking garage cleared out the Event will become a distant memory.

I’m mentioning this again here because of Bailey’s casual, pre-Event comments on Buck’s living arrangements, but the insurmountable weirdness of this pervades every page of the book. Every single page tells of something that happens just the way it would have happened in the pre-Event world, which is to say just the way it couldn’t happen in the post-Event world. Every page, in other words, recounts an impossibility, a contradiction, a negation of the premise of the entire book.

The effect of this never-ending stream of impossibilities is a book that’s impossible to read, a book that is constantly slapping readers in the face and pushing them outside of the story, a book that — on the most basic, fundamental level — just doesn’t work.

And yet not only do Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins never notice this, but the book sold millions of copies to readers ever-eager for sequel after sequel. Neither the authors nor their readers seem to care at all that the story takes place in an impossible and contradictory world. Neither the authors nor their readers has any regard for world-building.

I suppose that’s not surprising. Why should you care about fictional world-building if you don’t give a damn about the real world — the actual one we actually live in — or about any of the Other People in it?

LaHaye and Jenkins may not know anything about world-building, but they sure do know their target audience.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* For instance, I start to think about how this economic tsunami would affect the public sector — would the sudden decrease in tax revenue be balanced out by the sudden savings from the end of elementary schooling, child-care, foster-care and welfare as we know it? And that gets me thinking about the various social programs that might still be needed in a world without children, things like care for the elderly and for the mentally handicapped. And that starts me wondering about another matter not addressed in Left Behind thanks to L&J’s aversion to world-building: What does happen to the mentally handicapped during L&J’s Rapture? What would L&J say was the “age of accountability” for someone with Down syndrome? What about those reduced to a childlike state through TBI or dementia? And that whole series of questions prompts another horrifying thought about the scenario of a mission hospital or nursing home full of non-RTC patients, the prospect of which is disturbing enough to bring this whole train of thought to an end.

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