Nov 22, 2009

Critical Monkey Entry #4 — Left Behind: Ouch! My soul!

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please take your seats for the main event!

In this corner, wearing the beige tights and the quizzical look on his face, the always intense and banana enthusiast Critical Monkey! *Wild applause*

And in this corner, wearing the 'what were we thinking?' eighties ensemble, former television sitcom teen heart-throb turned wacko beyond human comprehension (and also banana enthusiast) Kirk Cameron! *Somewhat more muted applause*

Watch as these two titans battle it out for supremacy in the ring. Two will enter, one will leave, no quarter asked, none taken! All this in Critical Monkey: The Thunderdome Edition!

The stakes: only your immortal soul!

Left Behind
by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins
Jesus wouldn't have been the one who was thirsty. He would not have been the one who wished to take the water of life. That, Rayford assumed, referred to the reader. It struck him that he was thirsty, soul thirsty. But what was the water of life?
Why I might hate it: Well, the movie was one of the most atrocious things I ever forced myself to sit through (at least it was a library rental - no loss of money involved). I have an allergy to all things Kirk Cameron, but even excepting his non-presence (seriously, the guy makes Jim Caviezel look riveting), the film was a hopeless mess of poor acting, ridiculous dialogue, and religious speechifying. Maybe it's not fair to judge a novel based on an actor in a film, but whoever said the blogosphere was fair. The Left Behind series as a whole is considered far-right fundamentalist nonsense (although by the Glenn Beck Insanity-o-meter, it's almost sane). Much has been written about its intolerance and borderline-racism, and much more has been written about how absolutely atrocious the writing is.

Why I might like it: Maybe it falls into the 'so bad it's good' camp? Maybe? Please?

Verdict: Much as I hate to resort to such an awful pun, Left Behind is godawful.

In his collection Four Past Midnight, author Stephen King wrote a tight little novella entitled 'The Langoliers.' It concerned itself with a small group of people who had fallen asleep on an aircraft, only to awaken and discover that everyone else on board had mysteriously vanished. It wasn't one of his better stories (the know-it-all mystery author was a little much), but King is a sure hand when it comes to wringing maximum terror from outlandish situations. The scenario is absurd, but over 200 or so pages, King achieves a surprising amount of gut-clenching suspense over the predicament. His characters are strong, the dialogue is heightened yet believeable, and the plot device (waking up abandoned and alone) is so universal that a suspension of disbelief was easily achieved.

Flash-forward five years, when Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins (hereafter L&J) release the first volume of their Rapture epic Left Behind. Like 'The Langoliers,' it begins on an airplane where a segment of the passengers have mysteriously vanished. However, rather unlike King's pulpy good time, L&J take an astounding, brain-shattering event and treat the disappearance of passengers with all the astonishment of passengers not wanting a second helping of peanuts. That is to say, there is zero tension in the narrative from the get-go. And it does not get better.

It must be said, L&J have come up with a plotline that, while derivative of hundreds of post-apocalyptic scenarios, can't fail but grab your attention. Religious catastrophes are ripe for excitement; Stephen King (sorry to go back to the King well twice, but its apt here) penned an enormously entertaining epic titled The Stand about just such events, with most of humanity whittled away by plague, and the survivors being maneuvered by God to fight a monstrous evil. It would appear that the Rapture (for that is what L&J are going for here) should be ideal fodder for such ripping yarns.

Two problems with the execution of this idea: one, Left Behind is poorly written, with dull plotting and characterizations so flat as to be zero-dimensional, and two (and somehow even worse), Left Behind is boring.

It is a fair statement to say that Left Behind is marginally better written than, say, Twilight (written on the level of an enthusiastic teenager writing fan fiction), but it's also fair to say that Whoppers are better than Big Macs, or that According to Jim is better than The War at Home. To put it in simpler terms, better crap is still crap. And while Left Behind is not laden with the howlers that filled the pages of Twilight - although it certainly does not avoid them altogether: at one point, a taxi driver asks the character if Buck what he thinks of the disappearances that have swept the globe; Buck replies "Funny that you should ask." Funny? Millions of people have disappeared, and that's what you say? How is anyone NOT talking about it? - its writing is as poor and uninspired as the most generic of childrens' fiction. It's basically competent to a point, but there is absolutely nothing worthy of note in its style or presentation. It is a damp paper towel of a novel, soggy and disposable.

The characters are generic cutouts with little to distinguish between them except their names and occupations. Rayford is a pilot, Buck is a reporter, Hattie and Chloe are women, and all are just intrepid enough (and biblically inclined) to see through the disguise of antichrist-on-the-rise Nicholae Carpathia (a name that ranks only second to J.K. Rowling's Lucius Malfoy on the 'why didn't you just get it over with and name him Evil McBadguy already' sweepstakes). The men are all the movers and shakers, and the women are there to support them. This is one of the more disturbing aspects of the overall plot; men are the instigators, and women do barely more than act as background. Not once is any female character given more to do than worry about the men, and never do the authors present the events from their point of view.

So it's not good literature, or good fiction, or good fun, or even bad fun. So what is it? Considered that no character talks when they can speechify, this is evangelism in the barest form of fiction. Sure, all authors have agendas, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that. Just because I don't share the author's viewpoint doesn't mean I can't enjoy it on its own terms, right? If it were enjoyable at all. Which it is not. It doesn't even challenge the reader with its views, because its overall presentation is along the lines of 'preaching to the converted.'

I admit that there is much troubling about all this. Much has been written from far right religious factions as to the inherent dangers of Rowling's Harry Potter series of books for children. They claim that they promote witchcraft, and destroy the innocent readers' minds, or something equally nonsensical. But why should one story of magic and evil be verboten, while another something to be praised? I would bet good money that Rowling does not believe that what happens in her novels could happen, and neither do her readers. But L&J have gone on record as being firm believers in many of the novel's events and in the possibility of biblical rapture, and many readers of Left Behind await the events that occur in its pages with the passion of the zealot. I find much to fear in people that fervently believe in the actual occurrence of magical events if it suits their own needs, but condemn such ideas if they don't match their belief systems. One is finding enjoyment though imagination; the other is indoctrination through fear-mongering.

But regardless of this (and please, no diatribes on my comments, I'll just delete them) Left Behind is poorly-written pulp, not even strong enough to be mildly entertaining. LaHaye and Jenkins take an admittedly strong plot device and do absolutely nothing with it save preach to their base. It is awful, just awful. The Rapture itself could not be any worse.



gypsysmom said...

Amen, brother. I read this book several years ago and I still shudder that I actually had it on my bookshelf. Of course, it was a BookCrossing book and I always read books I have gotten from other BookCrossers. Interestingly, of the five other people who read the same copy no-one else reacted as severely as I did.

James Redekop said...

Have you been reading Slacktivist's ongoing series on the series?

Slacktivist is a liberal evangelical Christian who's working his way through the series, detailing everything that's wrong with it from both a literary and a theological point of view. He's been at it since Oct 18, 2003, doing mostly weekly posts, and he's up to page 113 of the second book.

The whole thing starts here and reads upward.

Unknown said...

Kay, now I hope you get to read something you have a remote chance of actually liking. Seems like "Left behind left a really bad taste in your mouth (brain)". And doing that one after having read Chuck Norris - I applaud your fortitude.

Corey said...

Oh, that poor man. What an exercise in masochism.

James Greenlee said...

I actually read most of this series, Books 1-8 and then 12 (or was it 13?). I found that each book spent 1/4 of its length recapping earlier books, so I knew I wouldn't miss much. It's dreadful, but the bad is so appallingly magnetising.

The most dramatic revelation I got from the "Left Behind" series was how much lip service God's/Jesus' love (they're treated interchangeably AND as a unit) is VOICED but never DEMONSTRATED. You just have to belive it. Because no evidence is ever given. Instead, there are rivers of blood, and incresingly ridiculous tribulations.

I was raised (nominally) a Christian, but never with much gusto. So I can say, if you have the background of vague Christianity, "Left Behind" will not pull you into "true believer" territory. . .it will push you further away.

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