Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind

In this allegedly secular age of ours, where the fantasy genre begets bestselling novels on vampires, zombies, wizards, and their ilk, how likely would it be to produce a massive bestseller on a strictly Christian subject? Say you’re a literary agent and someone sends a query letter about a book on the end of days: Christians around the world vanish, and nonbelievers are left to rummage through the chaos. Well, if you turned it down back in the early nineties, your gums would be numb now from biting your elbows. Because that’s the novel Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote as Left Behind (Wheaton, Illinois, 1995; 468 pp.), and the series that novel spawned had sold 40,000,000 copies by 2001. No, that’s not a typo (it’s up to 63 million now). I’ve said that this year I’ll write about bestselling novels, so here’s another one.

The story follows Rayford Steele, an airplane pilot, and Cameron (“Buck”) Williams, a prestigious journalist, as each of them deals with the consequences of the Rapture. Steele knows what really happened: his wife and child disappeared, and his wife had been preaching about the Rapture for years, while he remained deaf to her words and inimical to her invitations to church. Steele drifts to the church his wife attended, and embraces the spirituality and teachings he finds there. In fact, the pastor had recorded a video with instructions for those who would be left behind. (Very few members of the congregation were left behind, but a couple of them were, and they run the church.) In contrast, Buck Williams has no clue as to what happened and is caught up in political intrigues and a media flurry around the rising figure of one Nicolae Carpathia (we presume he’ll be the Antichrist).

Especially at the beginning, the plot is wrapped around the central message of the novel like cellophane: you can see the preaching distinctly through the storyline and the descriptions. This may deter some people. If you don’t have at the very least an agnostic stance on Christianity, you may find the whole work unpalatable. You may find yourself intoning the words the skeptical Chloe, Rayford Steele’s daughter, says when her father asks about the pastor’s video on the Rapture: “It made a lot of sense if you buy into all that. I mean, you have to start with that as a foundation. Then it all works neatly. But if you’re not sure about God and the Bible and sin and heaven and hell, then you’re still wondering what happened and why” (229-230).

In fact, the novel constantly plays with its own believability: people find the events of the Rapture so incredible that they remark that were they not caught up in them they would look upon these events with disbelief. That’s a hint to us, by the way. Sometimes the hint becomes more acutely self-reflexive: “If somebody tried to sell a screenplay about millions of people disappearing, leaving everything but their bodies behind, it would be laughed off” (110). (The series of novels eventually became a series of movies.) Later, a character notes that it “already seemed as if he were living in a science fiction thriller” (395).

Believable or not, the story does take a while to lift off. It is caught in too many digressions. For at least the first hundred pages, the narrative present serves as a coat hanger on which flashback after flashback is draped. I kept whispering to the story to get on with it, since we could pick up the necessary information along the way. The story does gather momentum, but the fondness for flashbacks continues to the end.

The language of the novel is often careless, in many different ways. Let me show some of them. Repetitions, for one, sometimes at close quarters, sometimes with more distance between them. Notice this shoddy repetition of head: “he was protected by security systems as complex as those that protected heads of state. As heady as Israel became with newfound glory […]” (9). Or this phrase that comes up twice, even if a few pages apart, to describe the same situation: “he had no emotional attraction whatever to Hattie just now” (49); “There was no affection in his embrace of Hattie Durham just now” (53). Something similar occurs with this simile, which is used 60 pages apart but it applies to the same character: “His head felt like lead” (400); “Buck’s body felt like lead” (460). All of these are word territory violations, clearly.

Sometimes it’s a matter of sound. Take note of these alliterations gone wild and cacophonic: “Buck was struck that Carpathia carried no notebook” (241). It’s so packed that it looks like I made it up, but I didn’t. At times, the authors dig deep into the trove of clichés. The lead comparison I quoted earlier is not particularly fresh, and notice this sentence: “Rayford Steele was nearly beside himself with worry, compounded by his grief” (154). This says little that our senses could connect with, and opts to compound abstractions.

This love for abstractions is typical of the narrative. The authors love to preface a scene or a line of dialogue with the emotions that we are about to witness, or even with the thing itself. As Chloe is about to tell Buck something, this comes before the actual dialogue: “And she told him her story” (402); then we hear the story. The narrator announces that a character is frustrated, or angry, or upset, before the character broaches those feelings on the page, through actions or words.

Aside from the questionable narrative effect of that, it is also a matter of excess, of debris not properly swept away. In fiction, every word counts. Or it should. Note how this sentence could be easily trimmed: “When Buck got off the phone, he saw the young woman at the counter flagging him down” (94). If she flagged him down, it’s because it worked, so he saw her. And flagging could become the more compact flagged. Therefore: “When Buck got off the phone, the young woman at the counter flagged him down.” The rest is clutter. Bloated sentences like this one abound in the novel, in fact.

After that rant on craft, to be fair, the authors do handle well one type of craft problem. When writing fiction, it’s often tricky to build the right bridges from one scene to another, or to strike the right balance between narrative summary and scenes. In Left Behind, the authors dash from one scene to the other without losing our attention or focus. Notice how offhandedly it is done in this example. Chloe is speaking: “‘it sounds like things are going to get worse.’ / Late in the afternoon, they dropped in on Bruce, who confirmed Chloe’s view” (418). One paragraph break is all it takes to get us from one dialogue to another, skipping ahead several hours and diving into a different setting.

So you’d think that, with all its flaws, I’d be a declared enemy of the novel. Well, not really. In fact, the story developed some speed toward the end, and the final scene was gripping. As I’ve said about other bestsellers, the plot is paramount, even if we literary types love to pick at the style. And the plot here is good enough. In fact, I’ve already ordered the second installment in the series: Tribulation Force. It’s a corny title, but, again, what truly matters here is a solid story. And can you think of something more apocalyptic and dire than the apocalypse? Endnote: Some people have criticized the excessive violence of the series. It’s not that salient in the first volume, but I can see how we are being groomed into a gory anticipation of the greatest, bloodiest war of all. And that’s probably not a very healthy thing. We’ll see how the series progresses.

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