T.F.: A new car

T.F.: A new car March 6, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 2-5

After the book begins with a three-page revisionist summary of "What Has Gone Before …," the opening pages of the first chapter find Rayford Steele reading a not-quite-current copy of the Chicago Tribune. This device allows Jenkins to offer a second, three-page revisionist summary of what has gone before.

I'll give LaHaye & Jenkins the benefit of the doubt and guess that the prologue was tacked on later, at the insistence of the publisher, and that the authors only intended their second book to start with a single belabored review of Book 1, rather than two consecutive such reviews in the first eight pages. I'll even allow that the newspaper article might have been a non-intrusive device for providing such a summary, if we hadn't just finished going over all this in the prologue.

But it's still difficult to abide the enthusiastic pride expressed in both of those summaries. These consecutive retellings of the events of the final chapter of the previous book convey the authors' belief that the Big Finale bloodbath n' brainwash was just the coolest thing they ever read, if they may say so themselves (twice). That nothing about that finale made any sense whatsoever still does not seem to have registered with them — even with these back-to-back repetitions of it. One wonders how long this could go on. How many times would Jenkins need to write and rewrite variations of "Nicolae revealed his powers by concealing them" before it struck him as odd?

Since we've already read all this before (twice), we can skim a bit here, but there are a few details worth highlighting in this second summary.

Rayford Steele was one of only four people on the planet who knew the truth about Nicolae Carpathia — that he was a liar, a hypnotic brainwasher, the Antichrist himself.

A page later, Rayford recalls Buck telling him that, "I'm absolutely convinced that if I had gone into that room without God … I would have been reprogrammed too."

This is the first time L&J have applied such pedestrian, technical terms — "hypnotic brainwasher," "reprogrammed" — to describe Nicolae's mojo. This is disappointingly un-supernatural. I was hoping for the Antichrist to be a bit more intimidating than Dr. Yen Lo in The Manchurian Candidate.

I'd have gone with something grander and more complex. For example, the authors here repeat their suggestion that, post-Event, God has withdrawn from this world. Contrary to, say, Psalm 139, it seems possible in their Tribulation world to flee from the presence of God. The divine presence can be found, apparently, only within the saved — if Buck "had gone into that room without God," it would truly have been a Room Without God.

That's theological nonsense, of course, but stir in a bit of immaterialist mumbo-jumbo from Bishop Berkeley and then add the Pauline concept that Christ is "before all things, and by him all things consist," and you could have a situation, due to the abdication of God during the Tribulation, in which the Antichrist becomes the mind that shapes all others' perceptions of the world, and therefore reshapes the world itself. I'm not sure that makes any sense either, but it'd have been more impressive than giving the Antichrist nothing but some vaudeville sleight of hand to work with.

The other detail to note here also involves the relationship of perception and reality — which in the universe of Left Behind are always identical for RTCs. The narrative perspectives we receive from Rayford and Buck are thus always to be regarded as reliable. So when we read Rayford's recollection here of his conversations with Buck and see the younger man consistently referring to him either as "Captain Steele" or "sir," we're meant to view this as an accurately rendered and appropriate show of respect on Buck's part, not of an undeserved pomposity on Rayford's part that colors his perception of every interaction he has with others.

That inadvertently distorting arrogance shines through in the text, of course, but the authors are as oblivious to it as Rayford is.

Now as Rayford read the bizarre story in the paper, he noticed Nick switching from autopilot to manual. "Initial descent," Nick said. "You want to bring her in?"

"Of course," Rayford said. Nick could have landed the plane, but Rayford felt responsible. He was the captain. He would answer for these people. And even though the plane could land itself, he had not lost the thrill of handling it. Few things reminded him of life as it had been just weeks before, but landing a 747 was one of them.

We switch to Buck's point of view for the first time in Tribulation Force and encounter another possible explanation for all of that "Captain" and "sir" business. I doubt the authors would acknowledge or agree with this, but I think this explains Buck's obsequious politeness to Chloe's father:

He tried to convince himself that it was the church that would keep drawing him west of the city, not Rayford Steele's daughter, Chloe. She was ten years his junior, and whatever attraction he might feel for her, he was certain she saw him as some sort of wizened mentor.

So Buck is a 30-year-old man whose compulsive daydreaming about an undergrad is constantly being interrupted by his having to talk to the young woman's father. "I'm sorry, sir, Captain, sir. Yes. No. I mean, sir, that I certainly wasn't thinking about banging your daughter. I mean the Captain's daughter. Sir. Not thinking that at all, Captain sir."

Buck has just relocated to Chicago — one day, apparently, after getting demoted from his office in New York.

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, midway between the Global Weekly Chicago bureau office and New Hope Village Church in Mount Prospect.

Here is another example of why even a Very Bad film, like Left Behind: The Movie, will often be better than a Very Bad book. If you're shooting a movie, you're going to have to show us the car. It will thus need to be a particular car — an actual automobile of a particular make and model, in a particular color, etc. — rather than the generic car being driven by Buck here thanks to the wholly unparticular Jerry Jenkins. Someone on the movie set will therefore need to ask, "What kind of car?" which will likely lead to the more specific question, "What kind of car would Buck drive?" And thus, despite themselves, even Very Bad filmmakers will wind up having to put more consideration into Buck's character than Jenkins ever bothers to do here.

This scene also reminds us that Tribulation Force isn't really set in a post-Event world.

The Event — the Rapture in which every child on earth and millions of adults vanished without explanation — was a wholly self-contained phenomenon that began and ended in Book 1 and will have no repercussions for the setting of our story here in the wholly separate realm of Book 2.

Here in TF, therefore, it still makes sense for Buck to go car-shopping and apartment-hunting, because the automobile and real-estate markets in this part of the series remain untouched and unperturbed by the Event. The fact that — just
two weeks and a few hundred pages ago — we were readin
g about highways and parking garages packed with the abandoned cars of the disappeared doesn't have any bearing on the availability or demand for vehicles at this point in the story.

The post-Event world ought to be a fascinating place. This, again, is what is so maddeningly frustrating about these books. The authors refuse to explore this world and they refuse to let us explore it either.

"Buck had spent the day buying a car" — that could have been an entire chapter. It could have been a chapter I'd have read with delight if the authors had shown the slightest bit of curiosity or imagination about what this task would have entailed in their alleged setting.

Global demand for cars, one assumes, would have declined even more than the one-third reduction in the global population, as a traumatized planet would likely respond by hoarding cash (and bottled water, canned goods and ammunition — something the Tribulation Force itself doesn't get around to doing for a bewilderingly long time). Two weeks on, automakers would still be frantically trying to figure out how their suddenly diminished production capacity corresponded to this suddenly diminished worldwide demand. Local used car dealers might be pleading with local authorities to keep abandoned cars indefinitely impounded to prevent a further glut in the market, or they might be angling for some backroom bargain to get their hands on this massive inventory for next to nothing. In Buck's new Chicago-area home, impromptu black markets for those abandoned cars would have sprung up in the student parking lots of Wheaton College and Moody Bible Institute.

Even if we confine ourselves to the particular details of Buck's visit to a single dealership, the possibilities flood out faster than one can even write them down. … "I can let you have a minivan at cost. They're hidden out back. People find them upsetting." … "We've stopped doing trade-ins, no room on the lot" … "Excuse me, can you help me?" Buck said. "I'd like to test-drive the Camaro." The man looked up, startled, his eyes wet with tears. …  "I'll throw in the 10-year warranty gratis." "Thanks, but that's more than I need," Buck said. …

We could go on and on and on (I invite you to in comments below), exploring the many ways, large and small, surprising or illuminating, that buying a car in the post-Event world would be different than this transaction is in our world.

By exploring such differences, we would learn a great deal about what both worlds are like and how and why they work the way they do. That sort of thing can be fascinating, but only if you care about the fictional world or about the real one or both.

LaHaye and Jenkins aren't interested in either one. Thus, "Buck had spent the day buying a car."

Likewise we're told almost nothing about Buck's "hunting for an apartment." Allow yourself even a moment's thought about apartment-hunting in the post-Event world and again alps on alps arise.

Buck finds a condo with "already installed phones." (What the …?) He's wasting his money. He could easily have found a whole house with already installed furniture, clothing and ready-to-wear identity complete with line of credit. Or Bruce could have just said, "Here's the church membership list, Buck. I've crossed off my house and Loretta's, but there's still a few hundred addresses there worth checking out." (For an intriguing imagining of what post-Event squatter culture might look like, see Jim Munroe's graphic novel "Therefore, Repent!" Read a half-dozen panels and you'll realize that, no matter what L&J may claim, their series is not set in a post-Rapture world at all.)

Following some tangent from a comment thread the other day I wound up revisiting some of what J.R.R. Tolkien had to say about the artist's imitation of the divine act of creation. That sense of loving reverence came through in Tolkien's painstakingly detailed efforts at world-building. LaHaye & Jenkins' approach to "subcreation" likewise mirrors their own concept of divine creation — slapdash, careless and unconcerned with the world itself. World-building, setting and character don't matter, only the mechanical unfolding of the implacable grand scheme.

They are hack novelists, in other words, because they believe that God is a hack novelist.

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