L.B.: CSI Atlanta

L.B.: CSI Atlanta November 1, 2015

(Originally posted November 25, 2006. 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. 234-236

If this really happened, we would give it a name. The instantaneous disintegration of every child and of hundreds of millions of adults, everywhere, at once. The lethal aftermath.

And the psychological aftermath. The panic and fear and realization that everything had changed. Every parent on earth simultaneously experiencing every parent’s worst nightmare. “I only turned my back for a second and she was gone.” “He’s not in his bed, where is he?” In an instant, the world is transformed from the home of 6 billion people to the home of only 4 billion, most of whom would be suffering from some form of traumatic stress.

“Things don’t just disappear,” my mother used to say. But in this story, they do. People do. And in addition to the shock, grief, loss and horror, this is something else everyone would have to cope with. They could no longer take for granted something they didn’t even realize they had been taking for granted. The possibility now has to be considered that you might at any second vanish without trace or explanation. A third of us gone, the remaining two-thirds would all feel the carpet had been yanked from beneath our feet.

So if this really happened, we would need to give it a name.

The authors and their protagonists already have a name for it, of course, it was “The Rapture,” but most people wouldn’t be calling it that. And by this point — a week after the fact — the name would already be settled. Headlines have to be written, cable news graphics have to be prepared, and most people in the news business don’t have the leisurely long lead that Buck seems to enjoy in reporting on this for Global Quarterly.

DoubleIndemnityShort on time and space, headline writers rely on a shorthand of date and place. The explosion in a mine in Sago, West Virginia, becomes “the Sago Mine disaster,” or just “Sago.” The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, become simply “Sept. 11,” or shorter still, “9/11.” Left Behind begins with a global event, the scale and scope of which renders such place or date names inadequate. Something like “Black Monday” wouldn’t even work, since what was late Monday in New York was early Tuesday in London.

The cabdriver in Atlanta refers to it as “the vanishings.” The lower case is wrong, but that’s not a bad candidate for a name. But while the vanishings were the biggest thing to happen — the worst thing, the truly earth-shattering, unprecedented horror — referring only to The Vanishing(s) might seem to fail to include all of the horrors of the aftermath. Two jetliners crashing on a single day would be an event remembered, by name, for decades. A half-dozen crashes, at every airport — set aside, for the moment, the lethal pileups on every highway — would, at the very least, send the economy into recession and result in a cabinet-level shakeup if not an impeachment or resignation. We would need a name for such an event that would encompass all of that.

I’d recommend, simply, The Event. No one would have any confusion as to which event this referred. For anyone to be confused on that point, they’d have to be as inhuman as the characters in Left Behind. Buck Williams might think it referred to the London car-bombing he narrowly escaped. Rayford Steele might think it referred to the surprise elections in Romania. Steve Plank might think it meant the Parliament of World Religions. But the name would probably work for everyone else.

I mentioned the cabdriver in Atlanta. That’s where Rayford has just landed on an apparently routine commuter flight. After an enthralling, detailed account of the Pan-Continental staffing logistics that afforded a two-hour window for the pilot and his daughter to eat lunch in Atlanta, they take a cab into the city, where all the good restaurants, just like the airlines, are carrying on business-as-usual. (We’re not told where they went to eat, but Rayford was looking for someplace quiet where he and Chloe could talk, so I’m guessing Chuck E. Cheese — it should be nice and quiet, with plenty of available tables.)

Rayford wants to talk to his daughter about his recent conversion and he’s not sure how to raise the topic. He thinks that discussing The Event would be a way to lead into it, but he’s not sure how to bring that subject up either.

Again, this is bizarre. If anything like any of this had really happened to real people, The Event would still be all that anyone would be talking about. But the authors, like Rayford, have blithely moved on, clearing away all of the physical and emotional debris. So we get strangely contrived scenes in which Rayford stumbles across a piece of the otherwise now-invisible aftermath so that he is able to raise the subject with Chloe. This happened on the way to the airport in Chicago, as they passed burned-out houses that weren’t there as they drove around earlier in the week, and it happens again in Atlanta, courtesy of their cabdriver. The cabbie, with her not-quite-believable touches of local color and her too-on-the-nose statements of the authors’ thesis, seems to have wandered in from a Tom Friedman column:

Their cabdriver, a young woman with a beautiful lilt to her voice, asked if they wanted to see “a truly unbelievable sight.””If it’s not out of the way.”

“It’s just a couple of blocks from where y’all are going,” she said.

She maneuvered around several detours and construction horses, then through two streets manned by traffic cops. “Over yonder,” she said, pointing, and she pulled into a sandy parking lot rimmed by three-foot concrete-block walls. “Can you see that parking garage ‘cross the way? … This has been going on since the vanishings.”

… They peered at a six-story garage with cars seemingly jammed into each other at all angles in a gridlock so tight and convoluted that cranes worked to lift them out through the open sides of the structure.

 The Vanishings occurred, she explains, during the middle of a late-night post-game traffic jam in the garage.

“And then, poof, they say more than a third of the cars ain’t got drivers, just like that. If they had room, they kept going until they hit other cars or the wall. If they didn’t have room, they just pushed up against the car in front of ’em. The ones that were left couldn’t go one way or the other. It was such a mess that people just left their cars and climbed over other cars and went looking for help. They started at dawn moving the cars on the ground levels with tow trucks, then they got them cranes in there by noon, and they been at it ever since.”

No. Just … no.

I doubt it’s possible to catalog everything that’s just wrong in that description.

Here you have a parking garage filled with people and then, “poof,” a parking garage only two-thirds filled with people. One result would, of course, be the sort of inextricable gridlock L&J describe via their cabbie amanuensis, but that should scarcely register for those who have just witnessed hundreds of people disappear. Yet no one seems to remark on or consider these disappearances apart from their affect on traffic patterns. (This could work as a satirical commentary on the Darwinian struggle of post-game parking lots, but that doesn’t seem to be the intent.)

I realize there aren’t a lot of kids at a late basketball game on a school night, but you’d expect at least a few frantic parents screaming in horror at their suddenly empty back seats. You’d expect some shock, terror, fear — something other than the blasé, purely logistical response described: “Hmm, darn’dest thing. ‘Bout a third of ’em, I’d say. Well, let’s get some tow trucks in here.” No one desperately calls their loved ones. No one turns on a radio to realize that my God this is happening everywhere.

True to form, L&J focus exclusively on logistics and mechanics, and yet still get those wrong. Ever call a tow truck in a snow storm? You can’t get one. They’re all busy. And Atlanta — the entire world — was just hit with something much, much bigger than a snow storm. Tow trucks would have had much bigger priorities than a bunch of cars stuck in a parking garage. They’d be on the expressways, or at the airport — if they could even get to the expressways or the airport. And there wouldn’t be “traffic cops” either — the National Guard and probably even the regular Army would be in the streets.

So no, it’s just not possible that “They started at dawn … with tow trucks, then … cranes by noon.” Those cars would’ve sat there for weeks.

And they should have sat there. Whatever else it may be, that parking garage is a crime scene. People don’t just disappear, so until foul play can be ruled out, it’s best not to destroy any potential evidence with tow trucks and cranes. It’s also the scene of multiple accidents and so, assuming they would be as miraculously immediately available as the tow trucks, the place should be crawling with insurance claims agents. Post-Event, insurers would be bankrupted by untold billions in property claims. And what about life insurance claims? (“I’m sorry, Mr. Steele, but if you can’t prove your wife is dead we can’t process your claim.”)

Come to think of it, an insurance investigator might have made a far more interesting protagonist — think Edward G. Robinson in Double Indemnity — than our unfocused, incurious reporter. Such a character would have to set about getting to the bottom of things, investigating what happened, what caused this, who or what is to blame. (The phrase “act of God” would be much discussed.)

Not only do we not get a protagonist interested in such questions, we get an entire world in which no one is interested in such questions. There’s no need to ask them — the answer is right there on the book jacket, which every character in LB seems to have read.

“Are you saved now?” the [cabdriver] asked.Rayford was shocked by her forthrightness, but he knew exactly what she meant. “I am,” he said.

“I am, too. You got to be blind or somethin’ to not see the light now.”

 Blind. Or somethin’.


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