T.F.: Fantasy sequence

T.F.: Fantasy sequence March 20, 2009

Tribulation Force, pp. 8-14

Despite his and Chloe's new faith, Rayford Steele found himself subject to deep mood swings.

This isn't surprising. Mood swings are on the list, along with: jealous, controlling, unrealistic expectations, isolation, hypersensitivity, verbal abuse, rigid gender roles and all the rest. Those are all from Dear Abby's warning signs of an abuser, which reads like a Cliff Notes' introduction to Rayford and, increasingly, Buck.

The brief vignette we get here of Rayford and Chloe is actually a welcome departure from the relentless misogyny of the current Buck subplot. This is a well-intentioned, if not particularly well-executed, aside intended to explore the Steeles' relationship to one another. For two pages, in other words, Jenkins seems mainly concerned about developing character. Such instances are so extemely rare in this series that it seems churlish to have to point out that this passage doesn't really work.

We learn here that Rayford felt sad. "He suddenly felt sad," Jenkins writes. And we're told again that he misses his wife, Irene, and son, Raymie. "How he missed Irene and Raymie!" (Exclamation points denote depth of feeling!)

But then here's a glimmer of something unexpected from Jenkins. Rayford is walking through the airport when:

… it was such a relief to see Chloe's smiling face waiting at the end of the corridor. In two decades of flying, he had gotten used to passing passengers who were being greeted at the terminal. Most pilots were accustomed to simply disembarking and driving home alone.

In the midst of telling us about Rayford's feelings, Jenkins almost inadvertently shows us something about Chloe's. That paragraph even involves a bit of imaginative empathy. At some point, Jenkins seems to have watched airline pilots working their way through a crowd of happy reunions and then to have imagined that this might seem lonesome. Remarkable.

Having brought father and daughter together, though, Jenkins isn't sure what to do with them, so he quickly returns to form, listing several other things we readers ought to know about their relationship and feelings toward one another:

Chloe and Rayford understood each other better than ever. They were fast becoming friends and confidants, and while they didn't agree on everything, they were knit in their grief and loss, tied in their new faith, and teammates on what they called the Tribulation Force.

The other remarkable thing about Chloe's surprise meeting with her father at the airport is that it allows two characters to have a face-to-face conversation, instead of talking on the phone. That refreshing change of pace is qualified somewhat by the fact that their entire conversation revolves around phone calls that Rayford missed while he was flying.

"Bruce has been trying to get to you," Chloe says, relaying the first of his messages. There's a big secret meeting of their secret group tonight at 7:30 and Bruce wants them to get in touch with Buck.

"Did you call the Weekly office?"

"I talked to Alice, the secretary there, early this afternoon. He wasn't expected until Monday, but we can try again from the car. I mean, you can. You should call him, don't you think? Rather than me?"

Rayford suppressed a smile.

And there, amidst the repetition and the compulsive name-checking, we get another glimpse of both Chloe and Rayford actually demonstrating what they're feeling. Remarkable.

That leads us back to Buck and to the next installment of his confrontation with Verna the militant. This is four vile pages packed with undiluted, jubilant misogyny. This is Part 2 of LaHaye and Jenkins' gleeful three-part recounting of their ultimate sexual fantasy, and it's every bit as stomach-churning as you might imagine that would be.

As this fantasy — the Humiliation of the Uppity Woman — continues, we find Buck once more stroking his, um, ego as he flirts with spiky-haired Alice:

Alice sat at her desk leaning forward, her head cocked, gazing at Buck and trying not to laugh aloud as he regaled her with whispered wisecracks. All the while he wondered how much of the stuff from his palatial Manhattan office would fit into the cubicle he was to share with the communal coffeepot.

We don't actually get to hear any of Buck's hilarious quips, but I'd be willing to bet that his conversations with women always include the words "palatial" and "Manhattan," as often as possible. Even before his conversion and his born-again experience in the U.N. bathroom, we were told that Buck believed in God. Of course he did. If there were no God, then whose gift to women would Buck be?

Buck's whispered stand-up routine is interrupted by a phone call answered "down the hall" by "the receptionist." So not only does this Chicago office have an army of support staff, but they still refer to them all as "secretaries" and "receptionists." It's like stumbling into an episode of Mad Men.

The militant Verna summons Buck into her office.

As soon as he was seated Verna sweetly informed him that he would no longer be the world-traveling, cover-story-writing, star headliner of Global Weekly. "We here in Chicago have an important but limited role in the magazine," she said. "We interpret national and international news from a local and regional perspective and submit our stories to New York."

Buck sat stiffly. "So I'm going to be assigned to the Chicago livestock market?"

Diiiiivaaaa. Chicago, Buck insists, is too small a stage for his journalistic prowess. He can't imagine finding any stories worthy of his gifts in the city of Royko and Terkel.

A pitiable sidenote: Jenkins presents Buck's Manhattanite chauvinism here as legitimate. He agrees with the condescending dismissal of Chicago as a relatively inconsequential backwater hick-town. Jenkins also spent most of his professional career as a Chicago-based writer.

"You don't amuse me, Cameron," Verna tells him. "You never have."

This is again intended to show readers that Verna is humorless and unlikable. I guess she was supposed to lean forward, cock her head, gaze at Buck and laugh out loud as he belittled her city and the work done by her and Lucinda and everyone else in that office. That's apparently how readers are supposed to respond to Buck here.

In our tour of these books, we've frequently discussed the Creative Writing 101 mantra, "Show, don't tell." That's good advice because showing is more vivid, elegant and persuasive. But it's also good advice because even when you're not explicitly showing, you're still likely revealing. And what you reveal unintentionally may betray far more about you than whatever it is you're trying to tell your readers about your characters.

We're shown just enough about Buck in these scenes to recognize that we cannot trust anything we're being told about Verna. Mostly, though, these scenes reveal less about Buck than they do about Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. And here again is why showing is more powerful than telling. The authors intend to tell us one set of things about themselves, but they wind up showing us things about them that they themselves do
not seem to know.

Identifying such unintentional betra
yals and somehow persuading authors to avoid them is one of the places where book editors really earn their pay.

The authors think it particularly unconscionable that Verna does not want Buck sneaking behind her back or going over her head.

"Your contact with Stanton Bailey will now funnel through me as well. Is that understood?"

"Are you asking whether I understand, or whether I agree?"

"Neither," she said. "I'm asking whether you will comply."

"It's unlikely," Buck said, feeling his neck redden and his pulse surge. …

One can't help but suspect here that what we are reading is a revisionist fantasy account of Jenkins' own past interaction with some female boss he still resents. He resents her because she was female and because she was his boss and because she did not lean forward, cock her head, gaze at him adoringly and laugh out loud at his wisecracks. And most of all he resents her because in that moment when she was forced to remind him that she was his boss, he didn't know what to say or how to respond. His neck felt hot and his pulse was pounding but he just sat there, inarticulate and impotent as she put him in his place. That night, and many nights thereafter, Jenkins lay awake, imagining how he would have responded if only he had been the sort of person who could write actual examples of wisecracks that would plausibly make someone laugh out loud.

When you consider how many times he likely replayed and reworked this conversation in his head, the saddest thing to realize is that this is the best he could come up with.

Buck challenges Verna to call Bailey herself. His last interaction with the big boss wasn't a good one — he'd been chewed out and demoted. But Buck is confident that Bailey, as a male, will take his side against the militant Verna.

"I've accepted my demotion and my relocation. You know as well as I do that relegating me to regional stuff is a waste of my contacts and my experience."

"And your talent, I assume you're implying."

"Infer what you want. But before you put me on the bowling beat, I have dozens of hours invested in my cover story on the theory of the disappeances …"

None of what Buck says here is accurate. He clearly hasn't accepted his demotion or his relocation. Accepting those things would mean trying to understand how his apparent absence at the U.N. meeting — and his subsequent apparent lying about that absence — would seem to even the friendliest of his colleagues. And that, in turn, might lead him to accepting that the Chicago Mercantile Exchange or even the local bowling beat wouldn't be an inappropriate assignment for him, just now. Either of those, after all, could provide a fruitful and effective a starting point for exploring the ramifications and possible causes of the disappearances.

This also isn't a good time for Buck to be playing up his extensive "contacts." His main contact, Dirk Burton, is dead. Chaim and Steve can't remember the last time he spoke to them. And Nicolae only counts as a contact of his in the way that, say, Richard Nixon was a contact for Jack Anderson.

It's also not clear why Buck thinks it would be impressive that he has invested "dozens of hours" on the story of the disappearances. That story began two weeks ago, so this just seems like an admission on his part that it hasn't received his full attention. He makes it sound, in fact, like the biggest news story of all time hasn't prevented him from strictly observing a 40-hour work week, with Saturdays and Sundays off. Plus, the only way his minimal efforts on that story add up to "dozens of hours" is if we count his time in the air aboard the half-dozen commercial flights and chartered jet he's used to hop-skotch around the globe for the past two weeks — all on the company's dime. Here on the ground, the longest stretch of "hours" he's spent on the story was spent right here, in the Chicago office, interviewing the underlings for their take on the story "from a local and regional perspective."

Since, clearly, Buck has not accepted that his demotion and relocation would appear warranted to everyone outside of the Tribulation Force, Verna reminds him that she's heard all about his absence, his initial lies, and his refusal to otherwise account for his whereabouts.

"It was a misunderstanding."

"It was a lie. You said you were someplace and everybody who was there says you weren't. I'd have fired you."

"If you'd had the power to fire me, I'd have quit."

"You want to quit?"

"I'll tell you what I want, Verna. I want –"

"I expect all my subordinates to call me Ms. Zee."

"You have no subordinates in this office," Buck said. …

Oh, snap! "You have no subordinates." That was cold.

Jenkins lies in the dark and smiles, imagining the scene. He imagines that this is what he had said to that castrating bitch when she was lecturing him about inappropriate workplace comments. He imagines his friends all high-fiving and back-slapping him as he describes the look on her face when he told her "You have no subordinates." Jenkins frowns for a moment, then he smiles again as he imagines that he has friends, and that he is telling those friends about the look on her face and that they're all high-fiving him coming up with such an awesome thing to say right there on the spot.

"Aren't you afraid that Ms. Zee sounds too much like Missy?"

Buck is loving this. He's on a roll. Never mind that a guy named Buck really shouldn't be playing rhyming games with other people's names.

She stood. "Follow me." She bristled past him, stomping out of her office and down the long hallway in her sensible shoes.

Again with the shoes.

Buck, still acting out Jenkins' what-I-should-have-said fantasy, takes the mature high road, clowning and making faces behind Verna's back as they walk through the office.

Buck moved deliberately enough to drive Verna crazy, and he noticed people in their cubicles pretending not to notice but fighting smiles.

How magnanimous of the GIRAT — a "celebrity … award-winning cover-story writer" — to delight the underlings with his wacky antics. As Buck passed, no doubt, they all leaned forward, cocking their heads, gazing at him while thinking that if they could just touch the hem of his garment — or stand in the shadow of his enormous penis — they would be made whole.

Once they arrive at Buck's cubicle, he lets loose with the speech he'd been saving for Verna.

"No, Verna, what's out of the question is you trying to vent all your frustration from who knows where in one breath. You know as well as I do that no one with an ounce of self-respect would put up with this. If I have to work out of the Chicago area, I'm going to work at home with a computer and modem and fax machine. And if you expect to see me in this office again for any reason, you'll get Stanton Bailey on the phone right now."

Buck waited to say all that until they were out in plain view and within earshot of the entire office
. Because Buck is classy like

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