TF: As sands through the hourglass …

TF: As sands through the hourglass … July 6, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 399-400

A lot can happen in 18 months. Or not.

We land a bit awkwardly after our leap forward in time to learn that our heroes’ circumstances have changed, but they themselves have not. They have not grown or learned or discovered much of anything new about themselves or the world around them. The chapter that follows that abrupt “Eighteen months later” time-skip reads like we’re returning to a bad soap opera that we used to watch every day but haven’t seen in years.

I suppose the idea of a soap opera requires a bit of explanation these days. There aren’t many of them left post-TiVo and post-Oprah.

I’ve never been a fan of soap operas or a regular viewer of any soap, but I’m fascinated by the idea of them and I admire the high-wire act involved in their production. Consider the ceaseless work involved in creating and producing an hour-long drama every day. Five teleplays have to be written every week, 52 weeks a year. Actors have, at most, a few hours between receiving their lines and performing them, usually in a single take. The frantic rush of such a schedule means it’s impossible for the writers and actors to do the best work they might be capable of doing. A first take of a first draft doesn’t allow for much exploration or for care and craft. Yet over time, through sheer volume, the characters attain a kind of reality as months of hastily written dialogue and unrehearsed performances accrue to inform the scenes that follow.

That’s the kind of marvelous thing about soap operas, and I don’t want to seem like I’m sneering at them because — considering the enormous implausibility of the endeavor — it’s a miracle they work at all.

But the bigger downside of the soaps is that they also seek to be accessible to new viewers, or to former viewers returning after a long time away. So they strive to retain a familiarity and a constancy that makes it easy for new viewers to jump in in the middle or to pick up months after they left off. That means the characters cannot be allowed to change or grow or learn. And a story in which the characters do not change or grow or learn isn’t really a story at all — just a disconnected sequence of episodes. This procession of events — of tragedies, affairs, diseases, betrayals, reversals, abductions and evil twins — turns out to be meaningless. It isn’t allowed to mean anything to viewers because it doesn’t mean anything to the characters. If it meant anything to them, then they would have to learn and grow and change.

And so here we turn a single page in Tribulation Force and find, suddenly, that we have been away from our heroes for 18 months, missing out on the daily soap opera of their lives. Yet that turns out not to matter. Rayford Steele is still exactly the same person he was 18 months ago. Buck is still Buck. Chloe is still Chloe. Nicolae, Steve, Chaim and the rest are all unchanged and unaltered. The world around them is slightly different and the authors spend the rest of this chapter sketching out some of those changes, but the characters themselves may as well have spent the past 18 months cryogenically frozen.

I suspect that much of the reason for this great leap forward was the chance to offer an accelerated, condensed account of those developments that Jerry Jenkins needed to avoid describing in more detail either because they do not interest him or because he does not understand them (or, probably, both). For instance, skipping ahead allows Jenkins to gloss over the implausibilities and impossibilities of Nicolae Carpathia’s rise to global power. Neither Jenkins nor Tim LaHaye is able to describe or imagine how such a thing might really happen, or to deal with the many, many reasons why it never really could. But the time-skip lets them leap over such holes in their plot — their supposedly divinely ordained and prophesied plot — picking up again later after the implausible and the impossible has, somehow, become a fait accompli. The time-skip thus functions like Phase 2 in the Underpants Gnomes’ business model.*

It may suggest something about our authors that the romantic attachments of our two main heroes are another key point they chose to breeze past through the time skip. Here again I am of two minds. Part of me protests that this is too important to skip over — readers shouldn’t turn a single page and suddenly learn that Rayford is on the verge of marriage to some character we’ve never seen and heard mentioned only once. If we’re going to care about these characters and about their relationship, then we need to be shown some of the history and development of that relationship.

But then I think about what such necessary and important scenes would have been like as described by LaHaye and Jenkins and I stop protesting, deciding instead just to be grateful that I will be spared having to read any of that. If Rayford’s “courtship” of Amanda White had to happen, then it’s just as well that it happened offstage, in the interim we skipped.

The Steeles, we learn, are still living in the Chicago suburbs despite Rayford’s new job being based in New York City. “The strain of living in Chicago while flying out of New York showed on Rayford’s face,” we read, although presumably that strain appears rugged and manly rather than haggard and peaked.

For months it had been all he could do to look at himself in the mirror while dressing for work. Often he packed his Global Community One captain’s uniform, with its gaudy gold braids and buttons on a background of navy. In truth, it would have been a snappy-looking and only slightly formal and pompous uniform, had it not been such a stark reminder that he was working for the devil.

Yes, he’s still “working for the devil,” hating it and hating himself for doing it – scarcely able even to look himself in the mirror. He took the job as Nicolae’s personal pilot because Bruce convinced him that the best way to serve God was to meet the daily needs of the Antichrist. Rayford accepted the weird logic of that – which kind of makes sense if you accept LaHaye’s idea of prophecy – but he still despises his boss and his job and his daily routine. I would say that it was his conscience working on him, except that Rayford doesn’t seem to have a conscience.

I’m not sure how a uniform can be both “snappy-looking” and “pompous,” but the general description of the thing – a kind of 1970s drum-major style – is all wrong. Nicolae Carpathia is taking over the world, assuming unchecked absolute power, through sheer persuasion and charisma. For him to have any hope of succeeding, he’s going to have to do better with the optics, the style, imagery and fashion of his new global regime. Take a clunky name like “Global Community” and add clunky, gold-braided uniforms and this thing is never going to sell.

[Chloe] had even offered to move with him to New York, especially after Buck had relocated there a few months before. Rayford knew Chloe and Buck missed each other terribly, but he had his own reasons for wanting to stay in Chicago for as long as possible. Not the least of which was Amanda White.

“I’ll be married before you will if Buck doesn’t get on the ball. Has he even held your hand yet?”

Chloe blushed. “Wouldn’t you like to know? This is just all new to him, Dad. He’s never been in love before.”

This chaste courtship of Buck and Chloe is another factor explaining the need for the time-skip. They have been dating for a year and a half and they do not yet hold hands. A kiss would be, for them, unthinkable. This is such an unreal, unprecedented romance that it would have been impossible to render it on the page without making Chloe’s excuses for Buck like the one just quoted begin to sound strained, desperate and delusional.

“This is just all new to him,” might work for a week, or maybe for a month, but in real life, if someone refuses to so much as hold your hand for more than a year then you have to suspect something is deeply wrong. As a general rule, I’d say that you can get through three or four dates without so much as a kiss goodnight while still clinging to the belief that the guy is interested in you, but just trying to be a gentleman. After six dates — or 10, or 12 — you’ll start to suspect that he enjoys your company but isn’t actually attracted to women. But by the 20th date, or the 30th, you’d no longer be wondering if he might be secretly gay – by that point you’d be suspecting that he was secretly a serial killer, and that after his chaste, no-touching farewells he was sneaking off to some lurid subterranean chamber of horrors like something out of Criminal Minds or Silence of the Lambs.

Chloe and Buck don’t need to “miss each other terribly” just because she’s in Chicago and he’s in New York. Living in separate time zones doesn’t really change a relationship like theirs. Even when they are together, they do not so much as touch one another.

I cannot imagine how this could be sustained for a year and a half. Jerry Jenkins apparently couldn’t imagine that either, so he skipped past it, then quickly summarized it after the fact.

“We close on this house two weeks from tomorrow,” he said. “And then you either come with me to New Babylon or you’re on your own. Buck could sure make life easier for all of us be being a little decisive.”

“I’m not going to push him, Dad. Being apart has been a good test.”

I doubt that any relationship needs another “good test” after already being tested by more than a year of no-touch chastity. And if one still feels the need to create and apply “tests” to make up one’s mind after more than a year and a half, then I suspect one has really already made up one’s mind and that it’s probably time to move on. Especially if, you know, the world is ending and the universe is going to be ripped apart by a petulant god in only five and a half years.

But we also learned about two other developments from what Rayford just said. I don’t think either one of them is even slightly believable.

First we learned that the construction of New Babylon in the Iraqi desert is nearly complete – that this new global capital and most-massive-ever military base has been successfully built from scratch and is now a functioning, habitable city.

Not a chance. The task of creating a viable new city of any size in only 18 months, in the middle of nowhere, already strains credibility. The idea that this ex nihilo metropolis must also out-London London, out-Rome Rome, and out-New York New York makes this simply unbelievable.

Granted, my skepticism here is informed by a bit of experience and hindsight not available to the authors when they were slapping this book together 15 years ago. In 1996 it might not have been as altogether laughable that such an impossibility might seem more possible if one added the full concentrated effort of the United Nations. But here in 2011, the idea of the UN quickly and successfully completing a massive construction project in Iraq serves as yet another reminder that Tim LaHaye’s alleged “Bible prophecies” could never, ever come true in this world or in any world anything at all like this one.

The other thing we just learned from Rayford is that the housing market has supposedly bounced back enough post-Event that it is again possible to sell one’s home rather than just leaving the keys in the mailbox and walking away.

Here again we have the advantage of the wisdom of hindsight – the ongoing foreclosure crisis arising from the Great Recession makes it glaringly obvious to us that the Rapture’s effect on the housing market would be devastating and enduring. But even in 1996, that should have been obvious enough if the authors had given even a moment’s thought to what the economy of a post-Rapture world might be like. I’ve touched on this a few times earlier, but mainly just to note how vast the economic effects of the Rapture would have been and to marvel at how massive an oversight this is on behalf of the authors.

In the last book, when Buck was out car-shopping and apartment-hunting (see “LB: What a world, what a world”), I wrote about how strange it was that he seemed to be doing this in a world in which the Rapture had never occurred:

The economic impact of the Event would seem to be devastating. It’s hard to see any way that the world wouldn’t be plunged into a global depression that would make the 1930s look like a Golden Age. Tens of thousands of businesses — those that catered to children and parents — would be wiped out entirely, overnight. But every remaining business would find itself with a massive surplus of inventory and production capacity. Despite the millions of instant job vacancies from disappeared employees, there would still need to be massive layoffs as global demand drops by 30 percent or more. All those vacant homes point to all the mortgages, car loans and credit card debts that would suddenly be in default. So now the banks are failing — along with the insurance companies, and …

Why would someone by buying Rayford’s house? Why not just stake a claim on one of the millions of newly vacant ones? We know the buyers aren’t looking for a bigger home with room for their children, and we know they no longer care about moving somewhere with a good school system — so what’s the attraction to this particular house or neighborhood?

Anyway, Chloe adds that she hates “the idea of leaving Bruce alone at New Hope.”

“Bruce is hardly alone. The church is bigger than it’s ever been, and the underground shelter won’t be much of a secret for long. It must be bigger than the sanctuary.”

So one character, at least, has changed and grown since we saw him last.

Bruce’s underground shelter was originally conceived as a secret hidey hole for just four people – himself and his exclusive inner-, inner-circle of Rayford, Chloe and Buck. But now, 18 months later, it seems that Bruce’s circle has expanded. He’s begun making room for more people, trying to reach out to provide safety to the entire congregation.

Bruce has learned something. He has changed and grown. No wonder the authors decide to kill him off.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* The Underpants Gnomes were a bit in an episode of South Park, the irreverent cartoon created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone – that is, the prestigious, Tony Award-winning duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Originally intended, I think, as a spoof of dubious dot-com start-ups, the gnomes have become proverbial due to their personification of an all-too-common form of illogic. The gnomes — tiny creatures in pointed hats just like those garden statues — set about stealing underpants to get rich. They explain their plan this way: “Phase 1: Collect underpants; Phase 2: ?; Phase 3: Profit.” (Here’s a clip on YouTube.)

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