Feb 17, 2012

Metafiction moments in Left Behind

Except to point out how miserably bad it is, people don't usually talk about the writing of Left Behind. Jerry B. Jenkins wrote the book in about 24 days,* and it shows.

The two most common responses to the book -- even as it sold millions -- were to find the writing bad and the plot unbelievable.

It's interesting, though, how exactly those responses are written into the fiction.

There are moments where, very briefly, the text is metafictional. The fiction is structured to draw attention to it's own fictionality, and acknowledges, with a kind of foreknowledge, the readers' negative response. The text, in a sense, shouts, "YOU!, you are responding in a certain way, responding right now, but that's also a part of the story, too, so don't get distracted -- keep reading."

In one example of this, a character thinks, "If somebody tried to sell a screenplay about millions of people disappearing, leaving everything but their bodies behind, it would be laughed off."

The novel itself is evidence, of course, that such a story wouldn't be "laughed off" before selling in the millions. However implausible the story may be, it's affirmed, still, in a sense, as plausible, because readers are reading.

In these metafictional moments of drawing attention to it's own implausibility, the text takes the disbelief of the readers and absorbs it. The readers' skepticism and disbelief is folded into the fiction. It's taken in, encircled by the story. It makes that disbelief not something separating one from the fictional world of the last days of the novel, but, rather, a key part of that world, a part connecting the reader to that world.

Thus, disbelief is not a reason to stop suspending disbelief, but another part of the story about which disbelief is suspended.

Though the novel is normally thought of in proselytizing terms -- as an attempt to get people to believe -- the more interesting strategies, on the level of the text, are actually not strategies to push one to believing, but instead just to position readers' disbelief. In acknowledging it, the text allows for disbelief, but sets certain terms for it and puts it into the story.

Skepticism is written into the story from the start, with skeptical characters saying skeptical things and defining themselves by their skepticism. Of course they all come to belief, but in the world of the novel, skepticism is encouraged. Skepticism is what's gets one to belief. It's not, as might have been thought, the firewall against belief, but, instead, the door to it.

This is also proselytizing, of course, but building off of and working with the resistance to story being told.

The skepticism is a set up, and a frame.

As Thomas Pynchon, the king of characters who think they're being skeptical and yet in their skepticism believe more than anyone would have thought possible, once said: If they can get you asking the right questions, they don't have to worry about the answers.

Skepticism is set up, here, in such a way as to draw, rather than repel the reader. It's framed so as to re-encourage the reader to read, as it places disbelief and makes a place for disbelief in the suspension of disbelief.

The metafictional moments take the readers' distance from the story and make that also a part of the story. The metafiction works to draw attention to the textuality of the text, yet does this in a way that's structured to lessen the attention, the rupture between reading and thinking "I'm reading," as it takes that moment of the readers' being aware of being outside the text, and places it inside.

So rather than being a break from the story, it's the story again.

In my favorite moment of this, a minor character is giving his account of the Rapture and his own post-Rapture conversion story and is interrupted by a character who, like a lot of readers, can't get past the quite-apparent ulterior motive behind the telling. The story teller then asks directly for exactly what a novel implicitly asks of a reader.

"Could you let me tell you my story briefly, without interrupting or saying anything unless there's something you don't understand?" he says. "I asked for a few moments of your time. If I still have it" -- this is not quite half-way in -- "I want to try to make use of it. Then I'll leave you alone. You can do anything you want with what I tell you. Tell me I'm crazy, tell me I'm self-serving. Leave and never come back. That's up to you. But can I have the floor for a few moments?"

That, it seems to me, is exactly the deal a novel strikes with a reader, giving the reader the freedom to put the book down and turn away and not believe, not accept the world that's being fictionally constructed. The reader is free, always, to stop being a reader. Free, always, to find the whole story implausible, ridiculous, and so on.

The other side of that deal, though, is being a reader. Hanging on to one's freedom to possibly not be a reader means not actually exercising that freedom. In the suspension of disbelief one is satisfied with the possibility and the availability of the option to not believe, and so keeps continuing to act as if one in fact does. One agrees to let the story be told "without interruption," and allows, even, the kind of interruptions that would have been made to be folded into the story one isn't interrupting.

Whether it actually works or not is another question.

But this makes the typical, safe and boring response to Left Behind -- oh it was so badly written, so implausible, so unbelievable -- really weird.

That rejection -- so apparently free -- is in some way already constructed as it's going to be by the text. The rejection isn't one's own, in a sense, or not, anyway, entirely free, but is the rejection foretold by the text, and so, a rejection that's also a fulfillment.

It's the readers becoming exactly who the text already said they were.**

*At most 24 days, based on his description of the minimum amount he writes while he's working: "I used to write 40, sometimes 60 pages a day if I had to. I wouldn't turn in anything that I wasn't happy with. But now that I'm older, my standards are higher, and I like to pace my writing. I'm pretty religious about finishing the 20 pages. If it takes until noon, that's fine. If it takes until midnight, I'll still do it because I don't want to fall behind."
** I.e., being "interpellated."