L.B.: Freeze frame, roll credits

L.B.: Freeze frame, roll credits September 19, 2008

Left Behind, pp. 467-468

Buck Williams carefully plans the book’s final phone call:

Buck couldn’t wait to talk to his friends in Illinois, but he didn’t want to call from his office or his apartment, and he didn’t know for sure whether his cellular phone was safe. He packed his stuff and took a cab to the airport, asking the cabbie to stop at a pay phone a mile outside the terminal.

One last phone call, one last NY-to-Chicago flight. All he needs is one last multi-page bout of introspection in the men’s room and Buck’s end-of-the-book victory lap would be complete.

Buck’s precaution here about the phone lines is a prudent bit of paranoia, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him that Nicolae tapping his phone lines might be the least of his worries. The newly appointed god-emperor of earth has just singled him out as the subject of mass-delusion and I can’t imagine how that could be a good thing.

This recalls Buck’s earlier stint as an innocent man on the run, traveling under a false name to elude the conspiracy led by Stonagal and T-C. That episode ended with him having his best friend* and closest colleague pick him up at the airport and then take him back to the office. He seemed to assume — correctly, as it turns out — that the nearly all-powerful conspiracy tracking him across three countries would not also be staking out his office or keeping an eye on his friends.

Now Buck worries that he may have run afoul of an even more powerful conspiracy, so he takes great pains to find a safe phone line on which to call his newest close friends and arrange to have them pick him up at the airport. If Cary Grant had been this clueless he wouldn’t have survived the first half-hour of North by Northwest.

Not getting an answer at the Steeles’, he dialed the church. Bruce answered and told him Chloe and Rayford were there. “Put them on speakerphone…”

Speakerphone! (Confetti and balloons drop from the ceiling, the band begins to play, etc.)

“Put them on speakerphone,” he said. “I’m taking the three o’clock American flight to O’Hare. But let me tell you this: Carpathia is your man, no question. He fills the bill to the last detail. I felt your prayers in the meeting. God protected me. I’m moving to Chicago, and I want to be a member of, what did you call it, Bruce?”

“The Tribulation Force?”

“That’s it!”

And who publishes that, again, Bruce? Tyndale? And will that be available soon at a bookstore near you?

“Does this mean –?” Chloe began.

“You know exactly what it means,” Buck said.

That Nicolae has brainwashed you into returning to Chicago as his spy, infiltrating the resistance as a mole in order to learn all of our secrets, foil our plans and eventually have us all killed?

Oh, or maybe you meant that other thing. …

“What happened, Buck?” Chloe asked.

“I’d rather tell you about it in person,” he said. “But have I got a story for you! And you’re the only people I know who are going to believe it.”

I’d have switched that around a bit and ended the book right there: “Have I got a story for you … but I’d rather tell you about it in person.”

That would be a nice note to end on, with telephone-addicted Buck Williams taking the first halting steps toward recovery, expressing for the first time in the entire book a preference for face-to-face communication without the telephone as a crutch. It would be almost uplifting.

Jenkins doesn’t leave it there, of course. The book has to close in prayer and he has to get everyone together for the team photo while he plugs the sequel for another three paragraphs. (Note: If as an author you’re finishing Book 1 in a series and you’re not yet convinced that readers will want and need to read Book 2 as soon as it comes out, then turning the final page of your novel into a sales pitch for the second book probably won’t help much.)

Here, then, are the appropriately awful concluding paragraphs of Left Behind:

When his plane finally touched down, Buck hurried up the jet way and through the gate where he was joyously greeted by Chloe, Bruce and Rayford Steele. They all embraced him, even the staid captain. As they huddled in a corner, Bruce prayed, thanking God for their new brother and for protecting him.

They moved through the terminal toward the parking garage, striding four abreast, arms around each other’s shoulders, knit with a common purpose. Rayford Steele, Chloe Steele, Buck Williams and Bruce Barnes faced the gravest dangers anyone could face, and they knew their mission.

The task of the Tribulation Force [Tyndale House, $19.95, 450 pages] was clear and their goal nothing less than to stand and fight the enemies of God during the seven most chaotic years the planet would ever see.

The inspiration for this scene seems to have been the freeze-frame endings of 1970s television. Our smiling heroes walk, four abreast, toward the camera and the picture freezes, just like the ending of every episode of CHiPs or The Love Boat. It’s easy to picture this scene playing out on such a TV show.

It’s not easy, however, to picture this scene playing out in a crowded terminal at O’Hare International Airport.

Just try walking this way with three friends — “striding four abreast, arms around each other’s shoulders.” It’s not easy. Or comfortable. It’s completely unnatural (unless you’re also singing “… people say we monkey arou-ound” while swinging your legs in choreographed unison). People don’t walk like this, especially not through crowded airport terminals and even more especially not if they’re part of a secret resistance cell group facing “the gravest dangers anyone could face.”

The idea of our heroes walking like this might sound semi-plausible at first, but once you try to picture it actually happening you find that it seems unreal and impossible. The more you try to flesh out how such a thing could really occur, the more convinced you become that it never could.

This brief chorus line stroll here on the final page of the book is only a trivial example, but larger examples of larger impossibilities can be found on every other page. This is, in fact, a major theme — perhaps the major theme — of Left Behind. The book is an unending series of events that it is impossible to imagine really occurring in the way they are described.

This brings us back to the failure of world-building we discussed last week. LaHaye and Jenkins almost never bother to tell us much of anything about the strange post-Event world in which their story takes place, and when they do provide details they turn out to be irreconcilable with details provided earlier. This lack of world-building in Left Behind is not an oversight, it’s a necessity. The authors are presenting an impossible story set in an impossible world. The more they tell us about that world, the less convincing their story becomes. But they couldn’t do more to describe such a world even if they wanted to because such an impossible place is indescribable, unimaginable.

I’m not merely suggesting that this story is outlandish or that it’s premise is audacious. I like outlandish and audacious stories. Tell me that the super-powered last son of Krypton has come to earth, or that vampires are real, or that a wardrobe can be a magical portal to a land of talking animals and I’ll gladly go along for the ride. Spin me a tale based on a time-traveling Gallifreyan, or a fleet of faster-than-light spaceships, or an alternate earth where 99 percent of the population is lycanthropic and I’ll be delighted. A square protagonist in a two-dimensional world populated by geographic geometric figures? Fine. Wonderful. Tell me more.

But such outlandish settings must be consistent. Storytellers can make up their own rules all they like but, having done so, they have to abide by them. Otherwise, it’s just nonsense.

And Left Behind, ultimately, is just nonsense. It makes up its own rules and then breaks them. And then it makes up more rules that require its other rules to be broken. Left Behind refutes itself.

The premise of the book is clear and clearly stated. The Rapture and all the other events foretold by premillennial dispensationalist “bible prophecy scholars” are all real and are all really going to happen. Soon. The book wants to show us the events of this cosmic drama acted out before our very eyes in a story that takes its plot from the authors’ End Times check list.

Yet the more we watch, the more we read, the less convinced we become that such a series of events could ever occur. Not because they’re too outlandish, but because they contradict and preclude one another. We cannot accept the authors’ assertion that A will be followed by B and then by C, because A renders B impossible and C could never take place in a world in which B had already happened.

This is the great and insurmountable failure of Left Behind. It set out to be a work of propaganda, a teaching tool meant to demonstrate — the authors would say to prove — that the events it describes could and indeed will really happen. Yet their attempt to present a narrative of such events instead demonstrates — I would say proves — that these events could not and indeed will not ever happen. It proves that the weird and contradictory events of their check list could never happen in a world anything like the world we live in, or in any other imaginable world. It proves that their supposed prophecies will never, and can never, be fulfilled.

Left Behind fails as a novel for many, many reasons, but all of its other faults — the odious lack of empathy it holds up as a moral example, its blasphemous celebration of self-centeredness masquerading as Christianity, its perverse misogyny, its plodding pace, its wooden dialogue, it fetishistic obsession with telephones, its nonexistent characterization, its use and misuse of cliches, its irrelevant tangents, deplorable politics, confused theology, unintentional hilarities, hideous sentences, contempt for craft, factual mistakes, continuity errors … its squandering of every interesting premise and its overwhelming, relentless and mind-numbing dullness — all of these seem to be failures of the sort that one might encounter in any other Very, Very Bad book hastily foisted off onto the public without a second glance.**

Any one of those faults, on its own, would have been enough to earn Left Behind a place on the Worst Books of 1995 list. The presence of all of those faults — in a single book and in such concentrated form — is more than enough to secure its place on a list of the Worst Books of All Time.

Yet the book’s signature failure is something far simpler. Left Behind disproves the very thing it sets out to prove. It presents an inadvertent but irrefutable case for the unreality and impossibility of all of the events that Tim LaHaye claims are prophesied to occur at any moment.

Those events are not about to occur. They never will occur. They never can occur. Don’t believe me? Go read Left Behind and see for yourself.

That signature failure, Left Behind’s forceful refutation of itself, is what earns this book my vote as the Worst Book of All Time.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Like Rayford, Buck seems constitutionally incapable of friendship, but Steve was as close to a friend as he had. Steve has always looked out for him, shepherding his career and securing his recent promotion. He was somebody Buck relied on for rides to and from the airport, and when the Event went down and everyone else was desperate to call their families, Buck McGyvered an airplane phone in order to e-mail Steve. Now Buck has been saved and Steve is captive in the thrall of the Antichrist.

There’s probably nothing Buck could do for his old friend at this point, but you’d think there’d be some nod in the direction of the standard convention/cliche in which the hero protests that “We can’t just leave him” and has to be dragged away or convinced against his will that there’s nothing anyone can do, etc. That convention is so overused because it’s necessary if readers or the audience are going to continue thinking of the hero as heroic. Thus the plethora of scenes in which the sidekick with the broken leg urges the hero to flee alone, saying “I’d only slow you down,” but the hero tosses them over his shoulder anyway, carrying them to safety.

Buck isn’t a hero. He flees, abandoning his former friend without a second glance or thought. He comes across as the kind of guy who would agree with the sidekick, “Well, if your leg is broken, you probably would only slow me down …” Actually, he’s even worse than that. Buck seems like the kind of guy who would bring this up himself:

“Your leg is broken, you’d only slow me down.”

“Wait, don’t leave me! I think maybe I can limp along, and …”

“No, sorry, too slow. Gotta go.”

** The ellipsis there is an invitation to help fill in the blanks. A comprehensive list of all of this books faults is probably not possible, but we can try.

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