(Originally posted October 26, 2007. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.)
Left Behind, pp. 353-355
Sometimes when you’re reading an otherwise effective book, or watching an otherwise engaging movie or TV show, one of the characters will suddenly say something that just doesn’t fit — something so out of character that it takes you out of the story, reminding you that these characters aren’t real, that they’re just reciting words placed in their mouths by some writer who hasn’t bothered to get to know these people all that well.
Everything in Left Behind is like that, only worse. And it’s more than just the occasional off-key sentence — there are whole conversations like this, whole passages in which everything that is said goes way beyond “out-of-character” and into the realm of inhuman. The reader doesn’t just think, “Buck Williams would never say that,” but that “Buck Williams is supposed to be a human, and no human would ever say that.” Or think that. Or listen to someone else saying and thinking such things without fearing for that person’s sanity and shouting in protest.
We’re in the middle of one of those conversations here. Buck Williams, Steve Plank and Stanton Bailey are talking in Bailey’s office. If you don’t pay attention to what they’re saying, and you don’t look out the window, then the scene seems almost normal. But if you do listen to them you’ll think you’ve wandered into some absurdist play set in a madhouse.
Steve has just informed his friends that the president of Romania has a multi-point plan for world domination. They smile, nod and ask about the details. Steve explains that the president of Romania intends to ask everyone on earth to give him their weapons, making him an unchallenged superpower and leaving them all defenseless. Sounds reasonable, Buck and Bailey say. And then the president of Romania intends to sign a peace treaty with an invincible nation that no one is at war with, to turn ancient Babylon into the east side of Manhattan and to turn Botswana into Iowa. That’ll take some persuasion, his friends say, but an appearance with Jay Leno should do the trick. Anything else? Yes, finally, the president of Romania intends to start a worldwide cult, replacing and outlawing all other religions. “Brilliant,” Stanton Bailey says. “Revolutionary.”
To have one character sitting there spouting these non-sequitur absurdities is bad enough, but to have two others — including the protagonist with whom we’re supposed to identify — just nodding along as nonchalantly as though he were discussing the weather makes the whole effect almost dazzlingly surreal. If you were sitting in that room you would have to interrupt — “Say, you guys didn’t happen to do a whole bunch of drugs, did you?” You’d point out that no one in their right mind would ever propose doing such things, and no one in their right mind would ever go along with it. That the president of Romania is making David Koresh and Sun Myung Moon seem comparably balanced and sane.
But here’s all Buck comes up with by way of protest:
“Aren’t either of you the least bit shaky about the guy?” Buck said. “It looks to me like people who get too close wind up eliminated.”
This is a valid concern. In just the past week, Nicolae Carpathia has been linked to the suspicious death of a whistleblower, a police officer and a journalist. (Something in Buck’s gut — call it instinct or a nose for news — tells him that car bombing was no accident!) But Buck’s timid objection — “the least bit shaky” — is still weirdly conditional. Like his friends, he has no objection in principle to voluntarily ceding all military and ecclesiastical authority to one person. In this particular case, however, due to that one man’s ongoing history of murder, intimidation and extortion, he has some minor qualms he feels should be discussed.
Stanton Bailey doesn’t share even these half-hearted concerns:
“Shaky?” Bailey said. “Well, I think he’s a little naive, and I’ll be very surprised if he gets everything he’s asking for. But then he’s a politician. … Shaky? No. I’m as impressed with the guy as you two are. He’s what we need right now. Nothing wrong with unity and togetherness at a time of crisis.”
Oh that’s right, it’s a time of crisis. Nice of Bailey to finally notice that. His estimation of this crisis is somewhat odd, though. It’s severe enough, apparently, that he thinks a global Caesar — man and god, pope and king, his power unchecked save by his own benevolence — is “what we need right now.” Yet the crisis is not so severe that he thinks it deserves regular, ongoing coverage in his news magazine, or that there’s any hurry to do a story on it for a couple of weeks or so.
Bailey dismisses the deaths of Burton, Tompkins and Miller as “only coincidental.” No need to make “too much of that,” sticking our noses where they don’t belong, he says. After all, we’re journalists.
Marge buzzed in on the intercom. “Cameron has an urgent message from a Hattie Durham. Says she can’t wait any longer.””Oh, no,” Buck said. “Marge, apologize all over the place for me. Tell her it was unavoidable and that I’ll either call her or catch up with her later.”
Marge, like Chloe, uses the indefinite article — “a Hattie Durham” — making me wonder if they both spent time as servants in some upper-class British household. But at least, after eight pages and about a half an hour of story time, the authors finally remembered poor Hattie sitting in the cab outside.
Bailey looked disgusted. “Is this what I can expect from you on work time, Cameron?”
Bailey has no problem with Buck spending half his day in off-the-record meetings for stories the magazine promises never to report, but meeting some woman at lunchtime — that’s just irresponsible. A lot of things that people say in LB just don’t make sense unless you share the authors’ gynophobia.
Jenkins suddenly seems to realize that this setting — the publisher, editor and former editor sitting in Global Weekly’s office — provides the opportunity for a bit of retroactive correction. GW is, as the name suggests, a weekly publication. Yet we’ve had no indication thus far that they’ve published anything since The Event. We can account for every moment of Buck’s time, so we know he hasn’t filed a story. Steve hasn’t said a word about deadlines, or about the current issue. We’ve seen reports from CNN and ABC News and from newspapers and Seaboard Monthly, but no evidence that anyone has written or read a single word for or from Global Weekly in the past eight days.
That’s the sort of first-draft mistake most authors would correct in subsequent revisions, but Jerry Jenkins doesn’t do revisions. He cranks these novels out with more haste and urgency than any of his fictional reporters have thus far displayed. So instead, we get these little retroactive corrections. The effect is a bit like hearing someone stumble through a joke they can’t quite remember: “No, wait, not nails, not yet. Grapes. The monkey asks the priest if he’s got any grapes. Oh, wait, actually he’s a bartender. The priest is, not the monkey. …”
“I’ll make no bones about it, Cameron,” Bailey says, clearing his throat with a cliché he doesn’t understand the meaning of:
“Let’s do the big Carpathia story next issue then follow up with the theories behind the vanishings after that. If you ask me, that could be the most talked about story we’ve ever done. I thought we beat Time and everybody else on our coverage of the event itself. I liked your stuff, by the way. …”
See? Not only did GW publish an issue, but it was even better than all those other reports that Rayford, the authors and even Buck himself seemed to find so much more quotable at the time. Plus Buck did file a story and it was so good that his boss complimented him on it because Buck is like a super-good reporter and stuff. Retroactive correction accomplished.
“… I don’t know that we’ll have anything terribly fresh or different about Carpathia, but we have to give it all we’ve got.”
Well let’s see, there’s Buck’s exclusive interview revealing Nicolae’s ties to a global criminal conspiracy, but they’ve already agreed that was off-the-record. And there’s Steve’s insider-scoop about Nicolae’s agenda for global domination, except they’ve promised not to go public with any of that either. I guess they really don’t have anything fresh or different to report.
“… Frankly, I love the idea of you running the point on this coverage of all the theories. You must have one of your own.””I wish I did,” Buck said. “I’m as in the dark as anybody.”
Remember when I mentioned that this book is full of characters saying impossible things — things no human being could ever say, or think, or agree with? This is what I mean.
About a month after the Boxing Day tidal wave, I heard an interview with a counselor who was working with survivors in Sri Lanka. She described one man who had been riding a coastal train that had been swept off the rails. He was traumatized, she said, still in shock because he could no longer rely on the fundamental boundaries and assumptions that shape our lives without our ever having to think about them. The ocean is there and the land is here; they can be relied upon not to suddenly switch places. Take away that assumption, put those fundamental boundaries in doubt, and it becomes impossible to function. You become crippled by fear.
The characters in LB have seen just such an assumption, just such a fundamental boundary, disappear — vanishing into thin air along with their children and two billion other people. Without some explanation, some theory at least, they would not be able to go on without fearing that they, too, could vanish at any moment without cause.
In the following pages, Bailey derisively dismisses “the space alien stuff,” even though, under the circumstances, it’s as plausible as any other guess as to what caused the disappearances. LaHaye and Jenkins seem to think that this alien-abduction theory would be comforting to those who settled on it. As though the idea that some alien species had, without warning and without explanation, whisked away two billion people, and might do so again at any moment for all we know, would somehow settle things. As though it would simply make people say, “OK, then, that explains that” and go on with their daily lives.
We know, from reading the back of the book, that space aliens aren’t involved, but that doesn’t change the fact that in this story every person on earth has just been turned into a young Fox Mulder, traumatized by the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of billions of Samanthas. Post-Event, there would be millions of Mulders — damaged and driven by guilt over their impotence to prevent the disappearances, they would refuse to rest, unable and unwilling to stop at anything until they could prove to themselves and to the world what really happened. The other option — the only other option — would be to curl up in the fetal position, sobbing. There is no room for Scully or Skinner in the world of Left Behind. The Event cannot be dismissed, or denied, or debunked with some hokum about “Electromagnetism, nothing to see here, move along.”
But instead we’re presented with the ludicrous idea that Buck — and Steve, Bailey, Hattie, Chloe, Rosenzweig, Dan Bennett, Wallace Theodore and everyone else outside of New Hope church — is simply going on with daily life, feeling no need to pursue or demand an explanation, untroubled that the boundary between existence and nonexistence has been irreparably shattered. Instead, The Event is presented as fodder for water-cooler speculation and leisurely chatter.
That could work if it were intended as over-the-top satire, but that satire would have to be front-and-center as the dominant theme. It would have to be a story about the human capacity for epic denial — a story about the way people can be so profoundly narcissistic that they could literally stroll past the burning wreckage of an airplane, side-stepping charred bodies without the slightest hesitation and tuning out the cries of the injured as though they didn’t even exist.
In a sense, of course, that is what the authors have written, but they did so by accident, unintentionally rendering themselves as meta-characters, two-dimensional clownish representations of the worst kind of solipsistic self-absorbtion.