L.B.: Reliably unreliable

L.B.: Reliably unreliable August 15, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 458-461

From the outset of this series — and many times throughout — we’ve discussed the question of whether our point-of-view protagonists should be considered unreliable narrators.

Neither of them is reliable, obviously. That’s clear from the very first chapter of the book in which Rayford Steele and Buck Williams take turns congratulating themselves for things of which they ought to be ashamed. Nearly every adjective these characters apply to themselves is inaccurate. Nearly everything they say or think about themselves is immediately thereafter contradicted by their actions. Their perception is all readers have to go on in Left Behind, yet it’s clear that their perception — of themselves, of the events unfolding around them and their meaning — cannot be trusted.

Yet neither of them is an unreliable narrator, either — at least not in the intentional, literary sense. The authors intend for the characters’ accounts to be wholly trustworthy, but neither these characters nor these authors are capable of providing that. Buck and Rayford think of themselves as good and heroic, and the authors share and approve of this opinion, even as both characters behave horrifically, disregarding the needs, the safety, even the humanity of everyone around them.

This is partly due to Rayford’s and Buck’s “Mary Sue” function as the wish-fulfillment surrogates of the authors, but it goes beyond the usual inflated egoism and self-indulgence of Mary-Sue-ism. The problem isn’t simply that the characters are unrealistically good or heroic, or that they conceive of themselves as good and heroic when they really aren’t. The problem seems to be that neither the characters nor the authors really understands what things like good and heroic mean.

All of that makes for a confusing reading experience. We readers might be able to handle an unreliable narrator, but an unreliable author goes too far. We are left with no one to trust, no place to stand. We feel a bit like Buck does here, forced to doubt his own senses and to distrust and disbelieve what everyone is telling him:

Buck fought within himself to keep his sanity, to maintain a clear mind, to — as his boss had told him on the way in — “remember everything.”

We readers come to this novel with certain expectations. We expect that it will tell us a story — a coherent narrative that makes sense. Those expectations are so habitual and fundamental to our experience of reading novels that it can take us a long time to accept that such expectations are really being thoroughly frustrated. That’s why it took me a very long time — hundreds of pages — before I finally conceded that the constant, flagrant contradictions between our narrators’ perceptions and their reality weren’t some kind of deliberate, meaningful narrative device.

But it happens so often, I would tell myself. Or, But it’s so blatant, that I’d half-convinced myself that this had to have been done on purpose. But it wasn’t. Reading this chapter, finally, I came to accept that. These gaps between characters’ perceptions and their reality, between their self-descriptions and their selves, are nothing more than Very Bad Writing and the authors’ own deluded unreliability.

That gap between perception and reality is central to the action of this scene. Everyone in the room has just witnessed Nicolae pulling the trigger, killing Stonagal and T-C with a single shot. Everyone watched as he took the gun and placed it in Stoney’s hand, clumsily staging the scene as an implausible murder/suicide (or, technically, suicide/murder). But then Nicolae tells them they didn’t see what they just saw. He tells them they saw something else:

“What compelled Mr. Stonagal to rush the guard, disarm him, take his own life and that of his British colleague, I do not know and may never fully understand. …

“All I can tell you is that Jonathan Stonagal told me as recently as at breakfast this morning that he felt personally responsible for two recent violent deaths in England and that he could no longer live with the guilt. Honestly, I thought he was going to turn himself in to international authorities later today. And if he had not, I would have had to. How he conspired with Mr. Todd-Cothran, which led to the deaths in England, I do not know. But if he was responsible, then in a sad way, perhaps justice was meted out here today.”*

It’s in the middle of that long speech that we get the other passage quoted above — the boilerplate business about Buck struggling “to keep his sanity, to maintain a clear mind.”

That passage likely seems familiar. It’s a capable rendition of the stock prose that gets used whenever the hero is struggling to think clearly due to having been struck on the head, slipped a mickey, chloroformed, injected with hallucinogenics, subjected to magical enchantments, or all of the above. The hero in such scenes always “fights within himself,” overcoming the physical/chemical/supernatural effects fogging his mind through Sheer Force of Will. That’s what Buck does here.

So even though we’ve been told that divine protection has rendered Buck immune to Nicolae’s lies, and that such divine protection was the only thing that could save him, what actually unfolded was that Buck “fought within himself” and won.

It doesn’t even seem like it was much of a fight. Despite that business about his fighting “to keep his sanity,” Buck is never really in doubt that he’s just as sane as he ever was. He trusts the accuracy of his perception and interpretation of events around him with 100 percent confidence, as do the authors themselves.

Two pages from now Buck starts hearing God’s voice in his head, but he doesn’t find that the least bit disturbing. Nor, again, do the authors. He and they just assume that he is always completely in control of his faculties and that he is always completely able to assess and interpret what is happening around him. And none of them seems capable of imagining any other possibility.

This chapter might have been more interesting if Buck had turned out to be only partly immune to Nicolae’s enchantment and he had emerged from this room less than certain of what he’d really seen — as though he really were having to fight to keep his sanity. He is, after all, a brand-new RTC, a mere infant in the faith, so the divine counter-enchantment might not have been fully operational just yet.

But that wouldn’t work because that’s not how the authors’ notion of RTC magic works. It’s a binary system. You’re either 100-percent saved or you’re 100-percent damned to Hell. There is no half-way, no partial, no blurring of categories. Truth is wholly true and lies are wholly lies. Good is wholly good and evil is wholly evil.

And that, ultimately, is why readers don’t have to worry about things like unreliable narrators in this book. The authors can’t have intended such a device because the authors don’t believe in it.**

Meanwhile, Nicolae is still babbling on about how his “first act as secretary-general” will be “to close the U.N. for the remainder of the day and to pronounce my regrettable benedictory obituary on the lives of two old friends” before finally he instructs Hattie to call security while he …

Wait, stop. Go back to that.

“Pronounce my regrettable benedictory obituary.”

That’s awesome. It’s like a mistranslation of something from Kierkegaard. And this from Nicolae, the man the authors insist reliably speaks in “perfect” English.

Anyway, Nicolae tells Hattie to call security and announces that he …

Regrettable benedictory obituary.

OK, nope, that did it. I’m done for today.

– – – – – – – – –

* Here is a convenient example. The authors have insisted at every turn that Nicolae Carpathia is eloquent, articulate and persuasive. Yet here we get a glimpse of his actual words and find he is nothing like that. Here, where his words need to be preternaturally persuasive, casting a spell over all his listeners, he instead winds up babbling and rambling. Our instinct as readers is to try to make sense of this. We assume that the authors chose these words, rather than others, and that they did so in order to convey meaning while telling a story. That assumption leads us to begin concocting explanations for this apparent contradiction between how Nicolae is described and how he actually speaks. Like maybe the authors meant for us to see this contradiction as evidence of the power of his Antichrist mojo to deceive. But no. Today’s lesson is to stop looking for such explanations in Left Behind because they aren’t there. These contradictions were not intended by the authors to mean something. They weren’t intended at all.

** Readers should also remember the way LaHaye & Jenkins claim to read the Bible. Theirs, they insist, is a “literal” reading. By that they mean, in part, that the meaning of a passage is identical and equivalent to the face value of the words in that passage. This is also how they imagine readers will approach their novel. Literary devices that rely on ambiguity — such as unreliable narration — are something they have no use for as readers or as writers.

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