L.B.: Chekhov's GIRAT

L.B.: Chekhov's GIRAT July 4, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 454-456

The next few pages are disappointing.

That probably seems like an odd thing to say at this point, about this book. We’ve spent more than four years so far marveling at the unrelenting awfulness of this wretched excuse for a novel — a book that starts out by failing on every level yet somehow manages to get progressively worse as we go.

This utter failure is, I have contended all along, instructive. For anyone interested in writing, Left Behind is like one of those grisly films they show in driver’s education classes — offering a graphic illustration of the disasters that can occur from carelessness behind the wheel. On another level the book also illustrates, on nearly every page, the unreality, monstrousness and impossibility of the very ideas it seeks to promote. LB is a work of theological, ethical and political propaganda that becomes its own reductio ad absurdum. It propagandizes against itself, disproving the very ideas it sets out to prove.

After watching this train wreck unfold for more than 450 pages, it might not seem possible that our expectations could rise to a point from which they might be disappointed. But despite everything we’ve seen so far, we find ourselves here on page 454 with what would seem to be the ingredients of a can’t-miss scene. We are in a room. In this room there’s a gun and there’s a villain who can control the thoughts and perceptions of others. Our hero has, unbeknownst to the villain, figured out a way to shield himself from the villain’s mind control. You know what happens next. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with comic books or American movies and television knows what happens next.

Except that’s not what happens next. What happens next is that Nicolae Carpathia seems to forget that he’s the Antichrist, about to seize global power, and instead starts acting like a cheesy birthday-party magician.

For his next trick, the Great Carpathio will require a volunteer from the audience:

"I would like to present to you all just a bit of an object lesson in leadership, followership, and may I say, chain of command. Mr. Scott M. Otterness, would you approach me, please?" The guard in the corner jerked in surprise and hurried to Carpathia. "One of my leadership techniques is my power of observation, combined with a prodigious memory," Carpathia said.

Here’s another lesson in leadership and, er, followership: Talking about your "leadership techniques" isn’t a very good leadership technique. Particular when the skills you’re patting yourself on the back for don’t have much of anything to do with leadership and in any case aren’t really techniques. The only way I can imagine an actual human saying that last sentence above without being immediately deposed and mocked by his former followers would be if it were said ironically, in self mockery. A campaign-weary politician praising the "great city of Cleveland," while speaking in Cincinnati, might get away with saying something like that as a joking apology. But just as he never uses contractions, Nicolae never employs irony.

"One of my leadership techniques is my power of observation," Nicolae says, "combined with a prodigious memory." And somehow, here in LB, the people who hear him say this are as impressed by him and he seems to be. This goes on for quite a bit.

"Mr. Otterness here was surprised because we had not been introduced, had we, sir?"

"No, sir, Mr. Carpathia, sir, we had not."

"And yet I knew your name."

The aging guard smiled and nodded.

One half-expects Carpathia to raise one hand with a flourish, like Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian, crying "Leadership!" (followed by this). The impression I get is of That Guy who thinks that reading the waitress’ name off her name tag gives him license to send his steak back and tip a lousy 10 percent.

The description here of Otterness raises questions about another of Carpathia’s leadership techniques: his utter disregard for security. The man is the president of Romania, newly elevated to the status of supreme leader of the One World Government. He should have an entourage. At the very least, he should be surrounded by a phalanx of dark-suited Romanian secret service agents. Yet all he seems to have by way of personal security is a gullible Jewish botanist.


Otterness, Nicolae, Buck

While we’re on the subject, where’s Jonathan Stonagal’s entourage? Shouldn’t the grand imperial wizard of international finance and head of a global conspiracy of evil have some henchmen? Even a guy like Todd-Cothran shouldn’t be traveling solo. He’s the head of a corrupt London syndicate that’s infiltrated the stock exchange and Scotland Yard, you’d think he’d at least have a driver/bodyguard, somebody like Martin Landau in North by Northwest.

Yet all of these alleged members of the jet set seem to travel alone, apparently arriving in New York on commercial flights, then renting cars to drive themselves to the United Nations (although I’m sure they all flew first-class and rented really nice cars). The hallway outside the conference room should be filled with dozens of bodyguards personal, corporate and diplomatic, but instead as the new OWG convenes for the first time, the only security present is one old guy with a hand gun.

"I can also tell you the make and model and caliber of the weapon you carry on your hip. I will not look as you remove it and display it to this group."

Buck watched in horror as Mr. Otterness unsnapped the leather strap holding the huge gun in his holster. He fumbled for it and held it with two hands so everyone but Carpathia, who had averted his eyes, could see it. Stonagal, still red-faced, appeared to be hyperventilating.

"I observed, sir, that you were issued a 38-caliber police special with a four-inch barrel, loaded with high-velocity hollow-point shells."

"You are correct," Otterness said gleefully.

Oooh! Such power of observation, and what a prodigious memory! The man is a born leader.

Superlative emotion is a routine part of LB, with characters almost randomly seeming to be overcome by rage, rapture, joy, depression, etc., but having so many of them in one room paints quite a picture. Buck is in "horror," Stonagal is "red-faced" and "hyperventilating," Otterness is "gleefully" holding a gun and everyone else is smiling "beatifically." A stranger walking into this room would likely think it was a drama class working on some bizarre exercise.

"I observed, sir, that you were issued a 38-caliber police special with a four-inch barrel, loaded with high-velocity hollow-point shells."

"You are correct," Otterness said gleefully.

"May I hold it, please?"

"Certainly, sir."

Aha! Nicolae’s ponderous "pick a card, any card" routine was just a ruse, a sneaky ploy to get his hands on the gun. But seeing as how Nicolae has mind-control powers, why would he need to resort to such a trick? For that matter, since Nicolae has mind-control powers, why would he need a gun?

"Thank you. You may return to your post, guarding Mr. William’s bag, which contains a tape recorder, a cellular phone, and a computer. Am I correct, Cameron?"

Nicolae has the gun already, so he really doesn’t need to be continuing with this Great Carpathio shtick. (And your wallet, Mr. Williams, it contains cash, a driver’s license and some credit cards. Am I correct yet again? Leadership!) … And wait — did he really just say that the security guard was there to protect Buck’s bag?

Buck stared at him, refusing to answer. He heard Stonagal grumble about "some sort of parlor trick." Carpathia continued to look at Buck. Neither spoke. "What is this?" Stonagal whispered. "You’re acting like a child."

"I would like to tell you all what you are about to see," Carpathia said, and Buck felt anew the wash of evil in the room. He wanted more than anything to rub the gooseflesh from his arms and run for his life. But he was frozen where he sat. The others seemed transfixed but not troubled, as he and Stonagal were.

That seems to confirm that Stoney is, indeed, immune from the mind-control, or at least that Nicolae isn’t trying to use it on him.

Nicolae asks Stonagal to stand:

Stonagal sat staring at him. Carpathia smiled. "Jonathan, you know you can trust me. I love you for all you have meant to me, and I humbly ask you to assist me in this demonstration. I see part of my role as a teacher. You have said that yourself, and you have been my teacher for years."

As we read last week, Stoney’s irritation throughout this scene arises from his sense that Nicolae has not been sufficiently fulsome in praising him, that his protege hasn’t shown proper gratitude or deference. He’s looking to be flattered, and here that flattery is supplied, but he’s still not happy. Maybe it’s because of that gun Nicolae is holding.

Stonagal stood, wary and rigid.

That’s a fine sentence, actually. It’s accurate, economical, almost elegant. And to be perfectly fair, it is not the only fine sentence in this 468-page book. There are 11 others. Well, 10 1/2. But three of those are really quite good.

"And now I am going to ask that we switch places."

Stonagal swore. "What is this?" he demanded.

"It will become clear quickly, and I will not need your help anymore."

That’s an ominously ambiguous statement. And it’s nice to see Jenkins for once resisting his compulsion to …

To the others, Buck knew, it sounded as if Carpathia meant he would no longer need Stonagal’s help for whatever this demonstration was. Just as he had sent the guard back to the corner unarmed, they had to assume he would thank Stonagal and let him return to his seat.

He just can’t help himself.

The two men switch places. Since the seating arrangement is important to the logistics of what Jenkins and Nicolae have planned next, we’re subjected to a paragraph that reads like someone arranging the head table at a wedding reception:

Stonagal, with a disgusted frown, stepped out and traded places with Carpathia. That put Carpathia to Stonagal’s right. On Stonagal’s left sat Hattie, and beyond her, Mr. Todd-Cothran.

Got it? Nicky, Stoney, Hattie, T-C. And then the first-runner up to Ambassador from the Great States of Britain, and another dozen or so faceless ambassadors and financiers, with Steve, and Rosenzweig and Buck sitting, you know, over … here somewhere. Just so we all have a clear mental picture.

"And now I am going to ask you to kneel, Jonathan," Carpathia said, his smile and his light tone having disappeared. To Buck it seemed as if everyone in the room sucked in a breath and held it.

"That I will not do," Stonagal said.

"Yes, you will," Carpathia said quietly. "Do it now."

"No, sir, I will not," Stonagal said. "Have you lost your mind? I will not be humiliated. If you think you have risen to a position over me, you are mistaken."

Carpathia raised the .38, cocked it, and stuck the barrel into Stonagal’s right ear. The older man at first jerked away, but Carpathia said, "Move again and you are dead."

And there you have it, the Antichrist’s big Show of Strength. Nicolae Carpathia demonstrates that he now has all the power of … a man with a handgun. Why, he’s almost as powerful as Scott M. Otterness himself!

See what I mean by disappointing? This is so utterly not how you write a scene involving a gun and a villain with mind-control.

Here again are the elements Jenkins gave himself to work with here: 1) A loaded gun, 2) a villain with mind-control powers, and 3) a hero the villain thinks is under his spell, but isn’t. There are dozens of ways this could play out that could produce genuine tension and suspense, but Jenkins manages to avoid all of them.

The idea of "Chekhov’s gun" is well summarized by Peter Case, "a gun in the first act always goes off in the third." Jenkins, unsurprisingly, takes this dramatic principle a bit too literally, as though it applied only to guns and not to Antichrists with mind control or to heroes secretly shielded from it. Anton Chekhov himself was not quite so literal-minded when he described what he meant:

"If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there."

If Nicky’s mojo isn’t going to be fired, then it should’t just be left hanging like this. If he thinks somebody needs to get shot, there’s no reason for him not to simply mind-whammy the security guard into shooting them. That would seem like the most efficient approach for a villain with mind-control, sparing us all the elaborate "power of observation" business.

That would be a bit inelegant, though, seeing as the guard is a minor, previously unknown character. Better to work the mojo on Stonagal himself, having him walk over and take the gun from Otterness, sticking it into his own ear. Again, if you’ve ever spent any time reading comics or watching TV, you’re familiar with such a scene. A common variation is to have the in-thrall character protesting the whole time, staring at his seemingly alien, Strangelovian hand’s betrayal. When done well, this can be fairly creepy and effective.

Those scenarios both would work better than the actual events of this chapter because they account for two of the elements listed above (the loaded gun and the mind-control), while Jenkins’ version only accounts for one. But better still would be a scenario that made use of all three elements.

In other words, given this set-up, what really needs to happen is for Nicolae to put the gun in Buck’s hand and, mistakenly believing Buck to be in his thrall, order Buck to do the shooting.

But instead, of course, we have the scene as written. The gun eventually gets fired. The Antichrist and Buck are left hanging on the wall, unused.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!