Total Drek

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Friday, January 28, 2011

The Overton Window: Dedication, Acknowledgments, Author's Note, and Prologue

Welcome back one and all to our ongoing series on The Overton Window, the book that you don't know anything about because we haven't really started with it yet. Last time I provided an overview of the process as well as my general impressions of the book, which were somewhat less than good. What happens this week? Well, basically nothing as we have to wade through an epic amount of front matter before we even get within shouting distance of the actual "story". In a way, however, this is a mercy as it means you won't have to meet the characters until next week, an event that cannot be delayed enough.

And, with that, let's begin! As always, page/line numbers are in bold, quotes from the book are in block quotes, my commentary is in regular print, and you can navigate the whole series with the provided tag. My footnotes use the traditional star system (e.g. *, **, etc) while references included in the Afterword to the book are noted with numbered parenthetical tags (e.g. (1), (2), etc.). Tally ho!

Dedication: In which the author(s) vaguely thank people who did something or other to do with this book.

The dedication page isn't really interesting, but it thanks three people using the organizing theme of "faith," "hope," and "charity." This isn't a particulately clear way to do it, however, as it's often not clear what each of these means. For example...

Page unmarked, Line 1-2:
Faith: To David Barton, a man who knows that the answers were left everywhere in plain sight by our Founders. [emphasis original]

I suspect what the authors mean here is the Constitution, but they might also mean the various letters and documents produced by the founding fathers over the years. Hell, they might even mean the Federalist Papers, although I wouldn't count on it. Nevertheless, I admit it amuses me to imagine that what they mean by that remark is something more out of Hollywood than history. Regardless, this is also our first encounter with something that will become familiar- constitutional literalism. Now, by that, I most certainly do not mean "strict constructionism", which is a legal view that the constitution should be interpreted in a very direct and limited fashion. It's this perspective that- at least hypothetically- leads some folks to deny that there's a constitutional right to privacy. I disagree with that particular view, but nonetheless I at least understand the general perspective. No, what I mean by "constitutional literalism" is something akin to biblical literalism, or the idea that your unique and often highly innovative perspective is somehow embodied in the "plain meaning" of a specific foundational document, and if other people don't agree, that's because they're being deliberately evasive or willfully evil. As a result, a reading of The Overton Window does not produce as strong a contrast with Left Behind as we might hope. As an additional result, the authors pretty much repeatedly suggest that those of us who have differences of opinion with them about what the constitution does and does not mean are basically ignorant morons. So, hey, that's fun.

Page unmarked, Line 3-4:
Hope: To Marcus Luttrell, a man who has shown us all what it really takes to never quit. [emphasis original]

Yeah, like I said, what does that mean? Is he a smoker, is that it? Did he keep smoking even through one of those little holes in his trachea, despite how hard that is? Who knows? Vagueness is okay, I guess- a dedications page isn't necessarily supposed to make sense to anyone but who it's dedicated to. Still, this one certainly signals the kind of rhetoric we're going to be "enjoying" for the next forty odd chapters. Specifically, this misguided sense that the authors are part of an unfairly persecuted group. And it's prominent especially at the end of the dedications...

Page unmarked, Line 7:
Never give up, never give in.

My best guess is the author(s) watched Braveheart right before writing this. Just a hunch. Anyway, now we're on to the acknowledments, which coincidentally begin on the first marked page.

Acknowledgments: In which the author(s) thank various and sundry people for various and sundry reasons while inadvertently letting us in on a few things.

Page VII, Line 1-4:
Special thanks to...

All of the VIEWERS, LISTENERS, AND READERS, including the Glenn Beck INSIDERS. We're not racist and we're not violent... we're just not silent anymore. [emphasis original]

It's rarely a good sign when a group of authors can't get more than a dozen lines into a book (and that includes the Dedication) without objecting to charges of racism and violence that have been leveled against them. This is not to say that I think the authors are either, but regardless a protestation to the contrary this early in the book is a bit weird. I'm also not sure what to do with that "we're just not silent anymore" bit. When, exactly, has the demographic that this book is pitched to ever really been silent or out of power in this country? In any case, they continue in this vein for a while and then we get to another interesting admission.

Page VII, Line 9-11:
...and all of the other remarkable people behind the scenes at MERCURY RADIO ARTS for never laughing at my ideas (at least not to my face). [emphasis original]

I love that Beck is self-aware enough to realize that some of his employees might actually find him laughable, but just refrain from actually laughing at him to his face. Also we should note that, in the same section of the book (that is, the Acknowledgments), we find both the suggestion that it may come across as racist or violent, as well as that its ideas may seem laughable. If they're trying to lower our expectations, hey, mission accomplished. And as long as we're on the subject, have you noticed all the "emphasis original" tags? He's literally capitalizing and bolding in the text itself. It's like Beck yells at his audience even in print.*

Page VIII, Line 1-3:
PATRICIA BALFE, for sharing her love of thrillers and mysteries with all of us. I realize I'm no David Baldacci or Robert Parker, but I still hope this book costs you some precious sleep. [emphasis original]

Interestingly, the Balfe mentioned above is one of three Balfes named in the acknowledgments, only one of which is actually a named author of the book. Also interesting, Patricia Balfe, who evidently loves thrillers and mysteries, is not the author Balfe. This may explain why this book is neither thrilling nor terribly mysterious. He's right that this book shouldn't scare Baldacci or Parker, much less Robert Ludlum, but frankly I think it doesn't even reach L. Ron Hubbard's level of writing acumen. I mean, hell, at least "Battlefield Earth" could be entertaining from time to time.** The Overton Window certainly did cost me precious sleep, however, but only in the sense that I had to struggle to stay awake while reading it.

Page VIII, Line 22-23:
EVERYONE ELSE who has fallen victim to my ADD- sorry, I focused on this page for as long as I could. [emphasis original]

I think this is supposed to be funny. It's not, but I admire the effort. I also concede that the grammar confused me a bit at first- I thought Beck was suggesting that his ADD is contagious or something. He has apparently been diagnosed with ADHD by the way, which I mention in the hopes that we'll all put ADHD related jokes off the table for the remainder of the book. Regardless, however, we're done with the acknowledgements, so now it's time to start the story, right? Eh. Not so much.

A Note From The Author: In which Beck shares a few preparatory remarks.

I just want to note that at the top of this page, written in big letters, I've scrawled, "Fuck! Start the damn book already!" I chalk my impatience up to the fact that all of the preceding has been in big block print and it really feels like the authors are stalling. This impression carries on throughout the rest of the book, actually, making it feel as though the contract specified that the manuscript had to be X number of pages, and the authors pulled out all the stops in finding a way to pump it up to that length. For the educators in the audience, think about what inevitably happens when you say something like, "Your papers must be at least n pages long", where n is any positive, non-zero number. And I really mean that- once when grading an assignment to write a three page essay on Emile Durkheim I ran across one student who wrote two pages and then filled the third with a grainy, digitized photo of the man. On that day I realized an essential truth of education: no matter how easy the assignment, there is always someone too lazy to complete it. Anyway, it sometimes feels like one or more of the authors are "that guy".

Page IX, Line 1-5:
I've been a fan of thrillers for many years. While nonfiction books aim to enlighten, the goal of most thrillers is to entertain. But there is a category of novels that do both: "faction"- completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact, and that is the category I strived for with The Overton Window. [emphasis original]

I'll concede that at first I thought the authors were making up words but, no, it turns out that "faction" is an established term for a type of fiction. I'll let you judge how well Beck integrates facts into his fiction, but my own conclusion is "not well".

Page IX, Line 6:
As you become immersed in the story...

Ah! An optimist! Excellent! Regardless, he explains how we may feel as though we recognize the world of the story because it's very similar to our own. As a fan of sci-fi and alternate history, I'll concede he's right, but it's more a world that seems like a crudely modified version of reality than an organic, breathing reality that happens to differ from our own. To see this sort of thing done right, try reading damn near anything by Harry Turtledove.

Page IX, Line 14-15:
I know this book will be controversial; anything that causes people to think usually is.

Each clause in that sentence makes sense independently, but not when you string them together. Joking aside, however, I want to note that this section essentially operates as a sort of nudge-nudge, wink-wink disclaimer. This book is "fact" but fictionalized, thereby relieving the authors of the responsibility to get the facts right, or at least to consider multiple lines of evidence. Likewise, the book is "controversial" but only because it makes people think and not because it's arguably an incitement to violence and political extremism. But then, that's not totally fair to the book since the authors do explicitly condemn violence on multiple occasions. That said, they also implicitly praise it, so it's a bit hard to say what the actual message is. I suspect it depends on the audience- if you're one of his "insiders" you know what he really means, but it isn't direct enough for an outsider to interpret. This is, of course, a dangerous way to encode a message, since it leaves much of the meaning in the hands of the reader, and therefore allows the same text to justify a number of courses of action. Sort of like how the bible says both "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live," and "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Page X, Line 13-19:
You may also notice that the words Republican or Democrat rarely appear in this book, and when they do, it's in an equally unflattering light. We also never meet the president of the United States or learn what party he or she is affiliated with. Those were conscious decisons, and it reflects the fact that what is happening to our country is not about a political party or a particular person, it is a course of destruction that we have been pursuing at various speeds for the last century. [emphasis original]

It's hard to know what to do with this bit. I mean, he's telling the truth, they don't specifically name political parties much, although they don't hesitate to name particular people who are associated with specific parties. At the same time, though, Beck is well known as aggressively partisan, so this comes across as more of a thin veneer of impartiality than anything else.

Page X, Like 20-23:
Every day that we scream "Where were you four years ago?" or "It's your party's fault and not mine!" or "I didn't vote for him!" is a day we move closer to the end of America- or at least the America our Founders envisioned. [emphasis original]

Funny, I would have said it was a day than the Glenn Beck show had been on the air, but I digress. The latter part of the quote- about the America the founders envisioned- is going to be a constant refrain but, at the same time, it's clear that Beck (I name him specifically because his signature is at the end of the section) doesn't really want us to think of that America. He isn't interested in the America the founders thought they were making at all, but rather in an idealized version that he thinks can be justified using references to the founders. But we'll explore that in more depth later on. In any case, Beck once more acknowledges that he can take any verbal punishment anyone can dish out*** (including, presumably, mine) and then wraps up his note to the reader. And finally, we might think, we can start the story! But we can't, because the next page has nothing on it except for a Thomas Paine quotation. But surely the next page?

Prologue: In which someone talks on the phone and then gets shot.

Recommended Mood Music:

This section opens with my scrawled remark, "Good goddamn. A prologue now?" Indeed, consider how long this episode is already, and we're only just getting to any actual "faction."

Page 1, Line 1-2:
Eli Churchill was a talker. Once he got rolling it was unusual for him to stop and listen, but now a distant noise had him concerned.

As opening lines go, this one is pretty dull. Do we care that this guy is a chatterbox? Does anyone really want to read about him? Novels are supposed to open with a hook that grabs the reader and pulls them in but this one leaves me feeling like the one that got away. Anyway, it turns out old Eli is on a payphone in the Mojave desert (1).

Page 1, Line 7-11:
In this much quiet your ears could play tricks on you. He could have sworn that there'd been a sound out of place, like the snap of a stalk of dried grass underfoot, even though no other human being had any business within twenty miles of where he stood, but he couldn't be sure.

First off, Eli is accustomed to hearing the sound of individual stalks of grass snapping? Is he Daredevil, or what? Second, please allow me to note that the preceding contains only two sentences, and the second is a doozie.

Page 1, Line 15-18:
When he put the phone back to his ear an automated message was playing; the phone company wanted another payment to allow the call to continue. He worked his last six quarters from their torn paper roll and dropped them one by one into the coin slot.

Oh, man. I hadn't realized how much I was missing intricate descriptions of consumer telephony! It's like I'm reading Left Behind all over again! In any case, he starts raving like a loon to someone named "Beverly" about how the government lost $2.3 trillion (2) (3) in 2001, noting in passing that it's, "...not an accounting error, that's organized crime." (Page 2, Line 19-20). He then claims he knows what it is this money went towards.

Page 2, Line 25-28:
"I've [Eli] seen the place, one of the places where they're getting ready for something- something big- planning it out, you know? I got a job inside in maintenance, as a cleanup man. They thought I was just a janitor, but I had the run of the place overnights."

Okay, so he's some sort of mole or secret agent? Maybe, but right now all we've got is a frenzied phonecall between a janitor and some lady named "Beverly". It gets weirder, though.

Page 2, Line 29-31:
"I saw what they're planning to do. They're building a structure." He [Eli] checked his notes to make sure he was getting it right. "Not like a building, but like a political and economic and social structure."

Wow. What kind of facility do you need to "build" a social structure? Are we talking a small factory, or does it require a volcano lair? And you don't do background checks on the janitorial staff for your volcano lair? What? Leaving that aside, Eli rambles on for a while longer, Beverly wants to meet with him, and then there's a serious failure of creativity.

Page 3, Line 17-20:
"We [Eli and Beverly] don't have the time; just listen now. They're going to stage something soon to get it all started. Just like that two-point-three trillion dollars that's missing, there are eleven nuclear weapons unaccounted for in the U.S. arsenal, and I've seen two of them-"

If this sounds a little familiar, it's probably because it strongly resembles the premise of Jericho, which would make Eli Churchill correspond to this dude, with the exception that Eli is an ineffective moron. It's never good when a novel seems to be cribbing from a failed CBS drama. In any case, at that point Eli notices a strange man aiming a gun at him with a laser sight. D'oh!

Page 3- Line 24-27:
Eli Churchill had enough time left to begin a quiet prayer but not enough to end it. His final appeal was interrupted by a silenced gunshot, and a .357 semi-jacketed hollow point round was the last thing to go through his mind.

That last sentence is struggling to be witty but doesn't quite make it. Oh, well. Bye, Eli! We hardly knew ya. No, really, we have no idea what the hell was going on in this scene, and the authors never really bothered to do anything to make us care. And that, amazingly is the end of the prologue and of this episode.

Come back next time when we meet the least interesting protagonist in modern fiction**** and his leading lady. I, for one, can absolutely wait.

* I'm naming him specifically because this bit is written in the first-person from Beck.

** The book, not the movie, The movie is unspeakably bad.

*** And, really, one should hope he could take criticism given his incessant haranguing of old academics and his mocking refusal to tone things down. What's good for the goose, eh Beck?

**** Believe it or not, I include Left Behind in that, but it's a near goddamn thing.



Blogger Ken Houghton said...

It is possible to find a .357 Magnum with a laser sight. It is even possible to find good discussions of why one might want to do such a thing. (Note the "weapon of choice for under cover law enforcement, detectives, private eyes, body guards" bit.)

Why one would use Dirty Harry's gun to take out this dude--whose own armament is unknown, so the laser sight will give him some reaction time, and the range of the gun puts you at risk--when a rifle with a scope would do the job rather better is left as an exercise.

Unless the answer is that the last (only?) time you paid attention to guns was when Clint and T. G. Sheppard were singing "Make My Day."

We haven't started the book, and I'm already nostalgic for the days when Sarah Palin asked if the rifle had "a kick," as if Newton's laws of motion didn't apply to her. Which was at least as rational as the choice of weapon here.

Friday, January 28, 2011 9:48:00 AM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

It's like Beck yells at his audience even in print.

Be glad there isn't a text style that indicates weeping.

Friday, January 28, 2011 12:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Drek, for performing this public service. I am looking forward to your evisceration of Mr. Beck's most recent opus.

Saturday, January 29, 2011 8:01:00 PM  
OpenID sassafrasjunction said...

Background checks on janitors for the Volcano Lair seem pretty typical, but what do we know?

I'm just deeply grateful he couldn't insert one of those cry-face AIM emoticons throughout.

Fucking pay phones. Seriously?! Nothing screams pre-2000 like the use of a pay-phone.

Keep it up, Drek my good man.

Sunday, January 30, 2011 9:22:00 AM  
Blogger scripto said...

".357 semi-jacketed hollow point round was the last thing to go through his mind."

As opposed to what? A .357 tuxedoed hollow point round? OK - someone got shot in the head in the prologue. Already better than Left Behind. Continue.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011 5:01:00 PM  
Blogger Fatman said...

Frankly, the fact that Glenn Beck has written a book - and had it published - requires a leap of logic I'm just not prepared to take right now. The man even speaks like an illiterate person. So I'll pretend I haven't read this post.

Thursday, February 03, 2011 8:27:00 PM  

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