Sunday, May 16, 2004

Slipshod: The Dress of Thoughts


There are so many stylistic faults in the Left Behind books that it might have been hard to pick my favorite one. The very first line of Nicolae made that task easy.

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.”

I’m not bullshitting you.

Immediately, I saw Snoopy on top of his doghouse pounding out such torpid prose. Then I felt bad for impugning Snoopy for such an abomination.

Who do we have to blame for this? The online biographies of the authors gives us a clue: “Noted scriptural authority Tim LaHaye provides outlines for the vivid Biblical prophecies in the Left Behind series. Best-selling author Jerry B. Jenkins creates the dramatic stories for each fast-paced apocalyptic thriller.” Of the two, it seems Jenkins does the heavy lifting of actually writing the books (though to be fair to their content, let’s say the light lifting) and LaHaye reads the Bible carefully to know who is going to burn in Hell and gives Jenkins the tips on this. It makes you wonder why poor Jenkins gets second billing when he’s apparently doing all the writing while LaHaye is raking in the name recognition.

But let’s get back to the sinful errors of style herein.

And what doozies there are in this series. Clichés teem and seethe through the prose. Tears roll, throats are stopped with lumps, sobs rise. Men are strong and fight against weeping; women are weak, sentimental, but with hidden strength (of character only).

You want more clichés? Here’s a small sample: “The night was as black as Carpathia's soul.” “He played the gentle botanist like a violin.” Hattie Durham, the Antichrist’s knocked-up girlfriend says of him, “He was already the most famous man in the world. I knew he was going places.” Ya think? The most famous man in the world sounds like he’s gone places already.

And there’s more than just clichés. You can’t write a poorly conceived twelve volume series without puffing it up with all the trite expressions, lame dialogue, overexpostulation, repetition of previous events, and just truly stupid sentences in your armory. You have to be either willfully ignorant as a person to write this badly or you have to have such a low opinion of the intelligence level of your reader to write down so poorly.

Consider, if you will, this passage:

The barricade that shut down Lake Shore Drive and the exit looked like something from the set of Les Miserables. Squad cars, ambulances, fire trucks, construction and traffic horses, caution lights, you name it, were stretched across the entire area, manned by a busy force of emergency workers.


For those of you unfamiliar with Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Miserables, and the subsequent 1985 musical, the story takes place in early nineteenth century France. I haven’t read the book or seen the musical, but I’m going to take an incredibly wild stab here and say that the play never has been staged as a particularly long episode of Law & Order. Maybe I’m wrong on this. I’ll let my readers decide.

Are the authors of these novels really this stupid? Don’t answer yet. There’s more, much much more.

As I mentioned in the Plotting Review, Cameron “Buck” Williams is an ace reporter for Global Weekly, a sort Newsweek or U.S. News & World Report type of magazine. He’s considered the best, hottest young reporter out there and if memory serves, he’s won at least one Pulitzer. Shortly after the Antichrist becomes the Secretary General of the U.N., he uses his vast fortune and the monies of the U.N. to buy up every single media outlet in the world. I’ll leave it to the reader’s mind to imagine how much dough that would cost.

Having convinced Buck to become Global Weekly’s editor-in-chief, even though Buck knows he’ll be getting his paycheck from his mortal enemy, Nicolae the Antichrist promises Buck that he’ll have complete journalistic independence. And it seems that Buck does, because he never complains, he puts out stories that he wants, he cobbles together issues with little oversight and little toeing the line of the Antichrist. Yet, he feels put upon.

Thinking of his writing for Global Weekly, Buck says it is propaganda, “what George Orwell would have called Newspeak in his famous novel 1984.” This demonstrates a lot right here. The authors (maybe just Jenkins, but maybe LaHaye too) have clearly not read 1984, or if they have they have only badly reconstructed CliffNotes memories from way, way back in high school. Like the Les Miserables reference above, they’ve got it so wrong it’s almost like a slap in the face to your intelligence. You have to ask yourself, you really have to ask yourself if they can be this dumb and this successful. (Quick look to the White House. Yes, the answer is obviously yes. You can be this dumb and this successful.)

The error, while not as glaring as putting Jean Valjean in a car chase, is just as ignorant, though more subtly so. Newspeak, as conceived of by Orwell, is not simply saying what the party line is, and it’s not simply stating flat out contradictions (“War is Peace”). It is a restructuring and reinvention of language with new words designed to make crimes impossible to commit. If you don’t have the ability to put the crime into words, you can’t even think of doing it. The authors clearly don't understand this aspect, but they seek to give their writing literary cache by referencing it. And they do so in the kind of terms a fourteen year old would use in a research paper. “George Orwell…in his famous novel 1984.” Again, the question has to be asked if they are this stupid or if they have such a low opinion of the intelligence of their readers that they overclarify. They couldn't just say, “Orwellian” could they? That would be too difficult, too educated, too much like elitist snobs like me with our secular liberal education.

You might think this is all quibbling, and to some degree maybe it is. But it’s these errors of fact and style that make up the bulk and tissue of the writing. Authors this unintelligent create characters even less clever than themselves. It’s only near the end of the third book, Nicolae, that Buck realizes “his God was not limited in space or time.” Isn’t it kind of late to be coming to that realization? Supposedly two years have passed since Buck was born again and here he finally comprehends some of the most basic theological tenets of the nature of God. In book six, will he realize that God is omnipotent too? (Even we self-styled atheists grasp this.)

If this were a well-written series of books about the end of the world, the third book, the title of which promises to focus more on the Antichrist himself, would back up, tell the story of his birth, his life, his rise. The second book, Tribulation Force, ended with the start of WWIII. Now’s the chance to leave your readers hanging, give ‘em a little suspense. Backtrack a good forty years and give us the story of the Antichrist.

We'd get a little more about who he is and what it was like to be Baby Antichrist, Boy Antichrist, Teen Antichrist (hypnotizing young Romanian chicks, no doubt, to be his sex slaves). Instead, this major character appears about as much as he does in the other two books, and the tale just pushes relentlessly on. It’s always forward. There’s supposed to be seven years here before Jesus shows up. Slow down, take a breather. If you were so interested in stringing out the series into twelve novels, this would have been an excellent way to go about it. Plus it would have given more proportion to the evil.

But of course this kind of author and intended audience, with this kind of simplistic Christianity that sees the world in such Manichean terms as us vs. them, good vs. evil, black vs. white, isn't interested in that kind of exposition. The villains, those deemed bad, are simply meant to be evil, one-dimensional opposites of everything we, the good, are.

And throughout the first three books, it is never made clear just how aware Nicolae is of his role in things. Is he himself too just an ignorant pawn in the battle between Heaven and Hell, or is he an active player, well aware of his diabolical nature and purpose. It’s a curious question, but does the Antichrist know he’s the Antichrist? In the second movie of The Omen series, the character Damien finds out he’s the Antichrist and he’s at first horrified by this and wracked with anguish at his own nature. I’ve always found that element of the story rather interesting.

Of course, it’s too much sympathy for the devil for LaHaye and Jenkins.

As there was a plan to write twelve end-times thrillers, there seems to be a number of instances in each book where the padding of unnecessary scenes of adventure pop up. These scenes don't advance the plot any and are hardly all that thrilling. But they do make a three book series stretch itself out long enough to make a twelve book series. What’s more, and I suppose this is a flaw only to the non-religious readers, there are long, long and repeated scenes of praying and group praying. These also help fill out the requisite number of pages and neither advance the plot nor illuminate the characters. What’s more, they are dull beyond any hope of redemption.

Stylistically, every element of a book should seek to advance the plot, fill in the background details, or illuminate the characters. By that standard there is perhaps a good fifteen percent if not more of this series that is no more than filler. How many times does Rayford have to look back on his past prior to being saved and think of how wretched he was? He was unfaithful to his wife—in his mind—and for this he curses himself over and over and over, thinking what a wretched disgusting beast he was. Yawn. Do it once, let us know this is in him. If you have to do it a second time, at least make it different, spice it up, give us some variety.

As a stylistic side note, every single time the plane Rayford was flying when all the good Christians were raptured up to heaven is described it is described as “fully loaded.” Every single time. I’m not sure what this is meant to entail, but it often comes up when Rayford is reflecting on how he almost had an affair with his senior flight attendant, Hattie Durham, now the Antichrist’s pregnant ex-girlfriend. If I wanted to unpack all my Freudian learning, I suppose I could make good hay there, but I’ll just leave it to the reader to wonder why Rayford thinks so constantly about piloting his fully loaded enormous phallus symbol.

Finally, as this is the style portion of the review(s), I would like to point out that the narrator of the books, Richard Ferrone, apparently with the tight gig of reading all twelve volumes does a nice job with the material he’s got. He never openly snickers when he has to read ludicrous nonsense and that’s a welcome relief. His vocal intonations are very nice and very subtle. He makes his voice jump up just a tiny, tiny notch for Chloe, making her both instantly recognizable without turning her into a preening caricature of a young girl. His various Israeli accents are serviceable, though Nicolae, ostensibly Romanian, doesn’t appear to have much of an accent at all. I can’t recall if his voice is described in the course of the books or if any mention is made of an accent, but there doesn’t seem to be one. The continuity of the same reader reading all twelve books will make for a seamless package.

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