L.B.: Chairface Stonagal

L.B.: Chairface Stonagal November 2, 2007

Left Behind, pp. 355-359

Buck and his boss are trading theories about the disappearances.

“I’ve got an uncle who thinks it was Jesus,” Stanton Bailey says, “but he also thinks Jesus forgot him. Ha!” That “Ha!” — a reflexive bark of derisive, mocking laughter — is a fine bit of projection here. For all of his talking like a gangster, Bailey is the authors’ stand-in for East Coast, media-elite intellectuals. Such people, they imagine, sit around sneering at Jesus and all Real True Christians. These elite snobs think they will have the last laugh — “Ha!” — but the authors know that, really, the last last laugh will be theirs. Ha! right back.

It reminds me, somehow, of a little kid doing art therapy in the school guidance counselor’s office, drawing elaborately violent fantasies in which he, in the form of his World of Warcraft avatar, wreaks bloody revenge on the class bully. This book is that drawing.

After his obligatory rejection of the authors’ theory (even-though-we-all-know-they-will-be-proven-right-and-everyone-else-will-be-proven-wrong-you-just-wait-and-see), Bailey explains his own theory:

“It’s almost eerie how close it matches Carpathia’s, or Rosenzweig’s, or whoever. … I think it was natural, some kind of a phenomenon where all our high-tech stuff interacted with the forces of nature and we really did a number on ourselves.”

This suggests a host of missed opportunities. The “almost eerie” similarity between his theory and Carpathia’s could have been presented as a truly eerie similarity — a la The Manchurian Candidate — suggesting that some kind of Antichrist mind-control mojo was at work. Buck’s interviews for his upcoming article could have produced a string of identical comments, all delivered with blankly reassuring smiles and followed by “Nicolae Carpathia is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”

That would have presented a deeper sense of foreboding about Carpathia than the half-hearted attempt at foreshadowing we’ll get to in a moment. And it would have helped to explain why the post-Event world is so weirdly complacent. The inhuman incuriosity portrayed throughout, one of Left Behind’s many insurmountable flaws, could have been turned into unsettling evidence that something deeply disturbing was at work. But instead, this complacency is presented as normal and unremarkable. Back when we were just getting started with this book, we discussed how it’s just Not Creepy Enough, contrasting the opening scenes of LB with those of Stephen King’s The Stand. King writes delightfully creepy horror stories, which makes him seem like a likably creepy guy. LaHaye & Jenkins have written a creepily un-creepy horror story, which makes them seem even creepier (and not at all likable).

If Stanton Bailey really believed the theory he claims to believe, he should be acting differently than he is. If “all our high-tech stuff” were really suspected of causing spontaneous human disintegration, then Bailey and everyone else would be avoiding all such “high-tech stuff.” If people really believed the Carpathia/Rosenzweig/Bailey theory, they’d be dismantling satellite dishes and microwave ovens. This scene started with Buck running into his office to pick up the bag holding his laptop and cell phone. If Bailey really believed what he claims here, Buck’s bag — along with everyone else’s — would already be smoldering in an incinerator.

The scene here should resemble Gotham City in the first Batman movie, after the Joker has begun poisoning personal hygiene products. That citywide panic was the result of just a handful of unexplained deaths, so multiply that by a few hundred thousand or a million and you’ll have an idea of the kind of widespread panic we should be seeing here in LB. Carpathia’s “electromagnetism” theory should be prompting a global wave of neo-Luddite technology aversion (at least until someone noticed that the Amish were all disintegrated too).

Carpathia’s initial, vague outline of this theory is worth repeating here:

“Dr. Rosenzweig believes that some confluence of electromagnetism in the atmosphere, combined with as yet unknown or unexplained atomic ionization from the nuclear power and weaponry throughout the world, could have been ignited or triggered … and caused this instant action throughout the world.”

(I’m picturing a scene with a nuclear physicist, pleading for his life with the angry mob about to string him up. “You have to listen to me — physics doesn’t work like that! It’s not possible! Just because some deluded botanist says that … please, no, nooooo!”)

I had assumed when I first read that that Carpathia would later use this speculation about the danger of “nuclear power and weaponry” as support for his campaign for global disarmament. Two billion spontaneous disintegrations blamed on the existence of such weapons would seem like an ideal pretext for the argument that all such devices must be turned in for disassembly. And just to be safe, he could have argued, the rest of our high-tech arsenals would have to go too. But weirdly, after laying the groundwork for this approach he quickly abandons it in favor of Plan B: Using his new status as People’s Sexiest Man Alive to politely ask every nation on earth to disarm voluntarily. Nicolae just doesn’t seem very good at Antichristing.

Unlike Bailey, Buck is destined to become an RTC, so he doesn’t laugh off the Jesus theory. “A doctor at O’Hare told me he was sure it was the Rapture,” Buck says, and the son of Global Weekly’s former Chicago bureau chief, Lucinda Washington, “believes she and the rest of the family were taken to heaven”:

“So, how’d he get left behind?”

“I’m not sure what the deal is on that,” Buck said. “Some Christians are better than others or something. That’s one thing I’m going to find out before I finish this piece.”

Throughout this book, L&J’s purported evangelistic concerns are consistently overshadowed by their triumphalism. Buck’s comment here is meant to show that he doesn’t yet understand what being a Real True Christian is all about. When they’re in their evangelistic mode, the authors will insist that the difference between RTCs and pseudo-Christians (those left behind with the rest of the damned) has nothing to do with any intrinsic superiority or inferiority. As the bumper sticker says, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” But this notion tends to get lost in the book’s tide of triumphalism and its overwhelming message that premillennial dispensationalist RTCs are, in fact, “better than others.” The sin that Rayford confesses, and that Buck will soon confess, is the sin of failing to acknowledge the truth of PMD prophecy lore. It is only after our heroes confess this particular sin and embrace the teachings of Billings/LaHaye that they become RTCs and receive divine forgiveness and salvation. In Left Behind, the refusal to acknowledge LaHaye’s teaching as supreme truth is the equivalent of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the unforgivable sin that condemns one to Hell along with the preterists, the a-Millennialists and the Jews.

No wonder then that Buck is a bit confused about the idea that “Some Christians are better than others or something.” The authors share this confusion.

Buck tells Bailey about his hot new lead on the disappearances, an airline captain who “thinks he has an idea”:

“An airline captain,” Bailey repeated. “That would be interesting. Unless his idea is the same as the other scientific types.”

Yes, Rayford Steele, airline captain and therefore “scientific type.” (Iceman: “Maverick! You can be my lab partner any time.”) It’s an odd notion of what “scientific type” means — a reminder that the authors are natives of a parallel-universe subculture in which “science” doesn’t mean the same thing it means here on earth. I appreciate the underlying idea here: Airplanes are marvels of engineering, sophisticated apparatuses whose inner-workings rely on mechanisms little understood by the non-scientific layperson. And since airline pilots operate such machines, they’re like a kind of scientist — uniformed PhD.s in applied aerodynamics. This isn’t a line of thinking the authors will want to pursue too deeply or too consistently. The same rejection of science that allows for their young-earth creationism could lead to their being unwilling to board an airplane.

“We’re gonna announce this today,” Bailey says — meaning, I guess, their schedule for the next two cover stories. Then, wrapping up this strange little meeting, he tells Steve Plank, “Don’t worry about anything you’ve said here finding its way into the magazine.” Carpathia’s secret plans for global domination will be filed away in a locked drawer with the Pentagon Papers, the CIA contracts of Jack Ruby and Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jeff Gannon’s not-so-little Black Book.

Buck leaves a message for Hattie at the airport and then catches a cab, settling in for some serious pondering about Nicolae Carpathia:

His mind was whirring. … He was becoming suspicious of Nicolae Carpathia. Maybe he shouldn’t be. Maybe he should focus on Jonathan Stonagal. Carpathia should be smart enough to see that his elevation could help Stonagal in ways that would be unfair to his competitors. …

Because by installing his pawn at the United Nations, Stonagal’s nefarious plan to corner the world market on mosquito netting and refugee relief would be unstoppable.

But Carpathia had pledged that he would “deal with” both Stonagal and Todd-Cothran, knowing full well they were behind illegal deeds.

Did that make Carpathia innocent? Buck certainly hoped so.

Just to clarify, that wouldn’t make Carpathia innocent. “Innocent” and “promising to cease actively aiding and abetting a lethal criminal conspiracy at some unspecified future date after that conspiracy is no longer able to benefit you politically” aren’t quite the same thing.

As taken as he was with the man, Buck hoped against hope that he wasn’t just another slick politician. He was the best that Buck had ever seen, but was it possible that Dirk’s death, Alan’s death, Eric’s death, and Buck’s predicament were totally independent of Carpathia? He hoped so.

If you’re ever caught red-handed in a crime, you have to hope that you have someone like Buck Williams on the jury. That litany of the dead there isn’t intended as a morbid running gag, but I wish it had continued throughout the series, with Buck remaining hopefully obtuse as Nicolae’s body count grows ever higher (“… and Stonagal’s death, and Todd-Cothran’s death, and Moishe’s death, and …”). A few chapters from now, Buck’s deluded hopes about Carpathia’s innocence will come to a violent end, but if readers were going to have any respect for Buck then really those hopes should have ended a few chapters before now.

On impulse, as the cab crawled into the impossible traffic at JFK, Buck plugged his laptop modem into his cellular phone and brought up a news service on his screen.

“Are you crazy?” the cab driver doesn’t shout. “Don’t you realize that kind of high-tech stuff caused the disappearances? Turn that off,” he doesn’t tell Buck. Had the cabbie actually said any such thing, of course, Buck would have listened to him. He’s a doctor of locomotive internal combustion, after all, a scientific type.

He quickly called up Eric Miller’s major pieces and was stunned to find he had written about the rebuilding and improvement in Babylon. The title of Miller’s series was “New Babylon, Stonagal’s Latest Dream.” A quick scan of the article showed that the bulk of the financing came from Stonagal banks throughout the world.

Buck views this as nefarious, and there’s a quote from Stonagal inexplicably denying his involvement in this project, but it’s really not clear why the rebuilding of an ancient city is supposed to be evidence of something fiendish. Archaeologists would probably be upset if this project were being done recklessly, but it’s not like it’s a crime or even a sin. Sure it’s weird, and pointless and foolish, but I have a hard time understanding why Buck would consider it evil. To the extent that there’s anything untoward about all of this, it would be the possibility that Stonagal is hoping for some financial gain from Carpathia’s U.N.-relocation scheme. So after shrugging off three murders, the thing that finally raises Buck’s suspicion is a plot roughly akin to the IOC bribery scandals. Stonagal would have been better off trying to turn New Babylon into New Macau — the Vegas of the Middle East. Instead, Stonagal comes across as someone more like Doctor Evil or Chairface Chippendale, a super-villain whose global scheme doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Despite that, Buck decides that this is how he will evaluate Carpathia’s true intentions:

To Buck, the litmus test for Carpathia was what he did about Jonathan Stonagal once Carpathia was installed as secretary-general of the United Nations. Because if the rest of the U.N. went along with Nicolae’s conditions, he would become the most powerful leader in the world overnight. He would have the ability to enforce his wishes militarily if every member were disarmed and U.N. might were increased. The world would have to be desperate for a leader they trusted implicitly to agree to such an arrangement. And the only leader worth the mantle would be one with zero tolerance for a murderous, behind-the-scenes schemer like Jonathan Stonagal.

So again, for the record, Buck has no problem with granting a single man global authority and unilateral military superiority, just so long as that man demonstrates “zero tolerance” for the behind-the-scenes scheming of Shylock international bankers. Where have I heard that before?

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