Total Drek

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Friday, June 03, 2011

The Overton Window: Chapter 16

Welcome back one and all to our ongoing series on The Overton Window, the book that would make you laugh if only you could stop sobbing in pain. Last time Noah got Molly into his bed and snuggled the shit out of her. What happens this week? We start part two and what appears to be an entirely different book. Sadly, that's not the good news it sounds like at first.

As I mentioned I am once again selecting a comment of the week, and this week that "honor" goes to Jonas for fleshing out the horror:

He turned her around and pointed up the tower of dark masonry and glass that had been behind her. "And way up there on the twenty-third floor, that's where I live."

Is it just me, or does "tower of dark masonry" conjure up images of Freemasons in the thrall of Sauron?

On a more serious note, I genuinely can't tell whether I'm supposed to think that Noah is an unreconstructed antifeminist douchebag, or whether that's the just the authors oozing through. Either way, this book goes on the "It's hot when men you've only met twice watch you while you sleep" watch list along with the Twilight series.

Any comment that suggests that Noah might sparkle in direct sunlight is pretty awesome, if only because it means that "kill it with fire" may well be the most appropriate possible way of dealing with him. What makes this comment even better, however, is the quick juxtaposition of a little Tolkein. I mean, I've never been able to stomach that high fantasy stuff- seriously, no offense, it makes me crazy- but at least it's written well. If these authors were writing The Lord of the Rings, we'd spend the whole damn time hearing about how posh Rivendale was, see the Nazgul giving an elaborate power point presentation, and finish with a dramatic debate battle between the uruk-hai and Boromir that was told entirely in past-tense narration by someone who heard about it from Frodo. Well done, Jonas, and keep at it everyone! This series is just gonna keep on happening.

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.). Fo' shizzle!

Dramatis Personae: In an order determined by the ASA council.

Eli Churchill: Former janitor at a volcano lair. Fan of remote telephone booths. Shot in the head by parties unknown.

Beverly Emerson: Mysterious correspondent of Eli Churchill's.

Noah Gardener: 28 years old. Sets the dating bar "medium-high". Works Vice president at a PR firm. Went to NYU. Not good at talking to women. Not really inclined to help out cab drivers. Low tolerance for alcohol. Lost his mother when he was young. Fond of chicken and waffles. Rich as shit. Views himself as a sexual panther.

Molly "Hottie McPretty" Ross: Dresses like a hippie, but not really. Looks like a free spirit. Perfectly captures the essence of womanhood. Auburn hair. Green eyes. Pale skin. Has a tattoo on her chest. Wears a silver cross around her neck. Lost her father when she was young. Impressed by fancy cars. Cocktease.

Arthur Gardner Noah's father. Owner of Doyle & Merchant. Megalomaniac. Surprisingly vigorous for a 74 year old man.

Khaled: Lebanese cab driver. Sold out by Noah Gardener.

Hollis: Friend of Molly Ross. Very polite. From the country. May be a Yeti.

Danny Bailey: Some kind of YouTube celebrity. Former lover of Molly Ross. Kind of a dickhead. Loves conspiracy theories and incoherent speeches.

Charlie Nelan: Gardner family lawyer. Silver hair. Impeccably dressed. Looks awesome. Has some sort of weird relationship with GQ. May have the ability to sense when Noah's in trouble using some sort of clairvoyance. Possible kleptomaniac.


Part TWO: In which the "plot" continues to stumble drunkenly downhill.

Recommended Mood Music:

Page 115, Line Fireballs:

No quote, and in fact this page isn't even numbered, but it does declare in big block letters that we're now beginning "Part TWO" of the novel. Scrawled at the top of this page we find my notation, "Wait, what? 'Part Two'? That was 'Part One'? Christ, how many ways to kill page space can one book employ?" The answer, to borrow a line from this work of clusterfuction, is "absolutely all of them". And one of the best of those ways is seemingly deep quotations that actually have nothing to do with anything.

Page 115, Line 1-11:
"The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and a foolish idea. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can throw the rascals out at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies."

-Professor Carroll Quigley, Author of Tragedy and Hope

So as you can see, most of the page announcing Part TWO is taken up by a big quote from one of the authors' boogeymen, Carroll Quigley. And this quote certainly sounds scary, as though Quigley is advocating some sort of evil oligarchy. Yeah, well, the devil is in the details or, in this case, the context. You can get a PDF of Tragedy and Hope here* and with its assistance we can look up the paragraph that the authors' quote comes from. I'll go ahead and put it below, with the section they quoted in bold:

The chief problem of American political life for a long time has been how to make the two Congressional parties more national and international. The argument that the two parties should represent opposed ideals and policies, one, perhaps, of the Right and the other of the Left, is a foolish idea acceptable only to doctrinaire and academic thinkers. Instead, the two parties should be almost identical, so that the American people can "throw the rascals out" at any election without leading to any profound or extensive shifts in policy. The policies that are vital and necessary for America are no longer subjects of significant disagreement, but are disputable only in details of procedure, priority, or method: we must remain strong, continue to function as a great world Power in cooperation with other Powers, avoid high-level war, keep the economy moving without significant slump, help other countries do the same, provide the basic social necessities for all our citizens, open up opportunities for social shifts for those willing to work to achieve them, and defend the basic Western outlook of diversity, pluralism, cooperation, and the rest of it, as already described. These things any national American party hoping to win a presidential election must accept. But either party in office becomes in time corrupt, tired, unenterprising, and vigorless. Then it should be possible to replace it, every four years if necessary, by the other party, which will be none of these things but will still pursue, with new vigor, approximately the same basic policies. [Pages 1247-1248]

And it rapidly becomes apparent that the quote presented by the authors is not just taken out of context, but is itself a monster worthy of Mary Shelley, stitched together out of parts strewn here and there in the original material, and jolted to life by the implication of conspiracy. Indeed, one wonders why the authors bothered to include that first ellipsis given how they neglect to insert the later quite necessary ellipses. And, as long as we're on the subject, the relative similarity of the two major U.S. parties owes less to the possibility of a nefarious conspiracy and more to the impact of Duverger's Law. But why would the authors need any knowledge of political science, anyway? Regardless, after another quote that I'm not going to bother dissecting because I've grown bored of investigating the authors' slovenly intellectual habits, we move into...

Chapter 16: In which we meet a new character, Stuart Kearns, and learn that Danny from the bar has been getting to know his cell mate all night. Also, there's some bullshit paranoia about the government.

Recommended Mood Music:

Page 117, Line 1-2:
Stuart Kearns flipped his black ID folder closed when it seemed his credentials had been sufficiently absorbed by the desk sergeant.

Meanwhile, in a totally different book...

Page 117, Line 5-7:
Kearns passed across a manila envelope that carried authorization forms for the interview and a conditional catch-and-release waiver for the prisoner in question.

This, obviously, raises the questions: who is Kearns, why does he have the pull to treat a prisoner like a trout, what prisoner are we referring to, and where are we? You may also be wondering why we're reading this shit in the first place, but I prefer to allow that to remain mysterious. Oddly, though, I regard these few paragraphs as relatively well-written, at least insofar as, unlike the remainder of the book, they inspire curiosity.

Page 117, Line 9-11:
...Agent Kearns took a short walk to a seat in a small side office to wait his turn, just like everybody else.

Ah, so he's an agent! But what kind? An insurance agent? A travel agent? A customs agent?

Page 117, Line 12-14:
It was just another privilege of the badge, he supposed. Civilians have to go all the way to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get this kind of white-glove treatment.

I'm pretty sure that's supposed to be funny. And, honestly, it does come closer than most "jokes" in this book, though the humor is somewhat lost on me since my experience of the DMV has generally been positive. Or, I should say, much less negative than many organizations. Regardless, it finally comes out that Kearns is an FBI agent and we get something that's just... well... you're going to have to read it for yourself.

Page 118, Line 4-13:
The fact that such people [bureaucracts] and their passive-aggressive infighting were a bit part of his professional life bothered him less than it used to. After thirty-one years of beating his head against the wall in law enforcement, a man shouldn't be surprised to find his brains bashed in and the wall still standing. But you can know a thing like that and go on acting like you don't. His first wife had said it best, on her way out the door. It's not other people, it's not your boss or your enemies or the kid at the supermarket. It's you. You ask for it, Stuart, and all they do is give it to you.

Thanks again, Sunshine, for all your support. You were the best of your breed; spouse number two didn't even bother to leave a note. [emphasis original]

It's like the authors are trying to write a hard-bitten, worn-down old cop character but, inexplicably, are doing so without ever actually having seen the stereotype executed. It's like someone described Hartigan to them and they're trying to mimic him. Except, of course, that whereas Hartigan's primary antagonist was a psychopathic pedophile, Kearns' nemesis is, apparently, long lines for public services. Anyway, at this point Kearns uses his keen investigative skills to look over the waiting room.

Page 118, Line 22-23:
A picture frame stood on the desk, still displaying the yellowing promotional family photo inserted at the factory.

Seriously? I mean, what? Has anyone ever freaking seen this in a public office? I've seen shitty "art" and out-of-date magazines, but never something that stupid. Whatever. We get a brief description of Kearns as old and jowly and then the sergeant tells Kearns his man will be out in a moment. Kearns is casually rude in response and it comes out that Kearns is there on assignment from the D.C. Joint Terrorism Task Force. Actually, he specifically mentions that his paperwork derives from the JTTF, which will be important later. Right now, not so much, but hey, there you go.

Page 119, Line 16-20:
These places had a sound all their own. Back there among the inmates it would be drowned out by the hue and cry of those right around you, but from a distance those troubled voices all intermingled into a sound something like an ill wind- an airy, echoing howl that drifted up from the cell blocks at certain times of the day and night.

In the margins at this point I wrote, "Wow, that was actually pretty decent," but now that I'm reading it again, I'm wondering why it was that I'd come over all stupid the first time. That was not decent at all, except perhaps in comparison to the remainder of the book. But, hey, in the land of the half-assed the minimally competent jerkwad is king.

Page 119, Line 21-28:
While he was waiting he pulled a hefty folder from his briefcase and opened it flat. This was an abridged version of the FBI file for the young man he was about to see. The guy was a marshmallow, he'd been assured, and by a covert order he'd just spent a long hard night in a cage full of the worst serial offenders this venue had to offer, so he would certainly be softened up even more by this morning. With luck, once a deal was on the table there wouldn't be too much time wasted in negotiation.

Ah. I see where this is going. We've just discovered what became of Danny Bailey. Apparently he's been in lockup all night listening to his cellmates expound upon what a pretty mouth he has. Never mind that, though, what I want to know is: what the hell has Danny done to warrant any FBI file, much less a thick one?

Page 119, Line 29-32:
It was an unusually thick file for someone who'd never been arrested for anything more serious than fairly minor narcotics offenses. Cocaine, mostly, some party drugs, and he'd been busted with a modest grow operation and a trash bag full of premium bud at one point...

I'm not sure what to make of that, actually, given that Federal marijuana laws are not what I'd describe as gentle. Likewise, cocaine is pretty serious, although treated much less harshly than crack. So, I'm not sure what here is supposed to be "minor". Then again, Glenn Beck admits to abusing drugs back in the day, so maybe this is his perception of what constitutes a set of "minor" drug offenses? Anyway, Kearns notes that Bailey plea-bargained his way out of prosecution by turning on his accomplices, reads about a pair of suicide attempts, and then notices all the surveillance this guy is under, including...

Page 120, Line 10-11:
...highlighted transcripts of a monitored ham-radio show...

A what, now? A "ham-radio show"? What the hell is that? As it happens, I actually have an amateur radio license (although I let my membership in the ARRL lapse years ago) and I have never heard of a ham running a show. Truth be told, I'm not even sure that such a thing would be legal under FCC rules, which define what it is that hams can and cannot do in their allocated bands. Ah, whatever. Kearns notes that the surveillance was conducted under the aegis of concern over "hate speech/counterterrorism," whatever the hell that means, and that in addition to the joint terrorism task force, the domestic terrorism working group and the weapons of mass destruction working group are also interested. Always a good sign.

Page 120, Line 20-25:
Based on this file and, more important, based on Stuart Kearns's long experience in the field, this little guy didn't seem like he'd ever been much for the government to worry about. It was almost as though they decided years ago that they were going to get him, but they hadn't yet known exactly how. He didn't seem dangerous, only outspoken and troublesome. But, heaven knows, stranger things have happened.

One thing I really hate about this book is that the authors simply cannot content themselves with painting a picture. No, on the rare occasions when they attempt to show rather than tell- invariably doing so incompetently- they nevertheless always follow up with a bit of prose that states their point. It's like the guy who tells a joke and then, after the punchline, immediately says, "See? It's funny because..." and then explains the whole thing. If you need to explain it, then your story-telling is weak, and if your story-telling is weak, make it stronger, don't embed the Cliff's Notes right in the damn text. Anyway, Kearns thinks morosely about how personal liberties are gradually being eroded, in the process leading to an amusing slip-up on the part of the authors.

Page 120, Line 30-31:
Today even the most liberal of politicians were openly floating the idea of preventive detention for terrorism suspects...

Wow, authors! Did you seriously just imply that it's the liberals that are really interested in civil liberties? That just doesn't sound like you at all!

Page 121, Line 3-9:
The presumption of innocence was an admirable doctrine in simpler days, though at best it had always been unevenly applied in practice- more an ideal to strive toward than a true and present cornerstone of American justice. In recent years an increasingly frightened public had approved of that hallowed concept being systematically replaced with another, especially when it came to certain groups and offenses: When in doubt, lock them up.

I think in the above passage when the authors say "public" they mean "our kind of people". I was pretty pissed and scared after 9/11, and definitely wanted a state actor to do some violence to in retaliation, but from my recollection the entire public was not prepared to deep-six core principles of our justice system. Certain segments of that public, yes, but not the whole thing. Not by a long shot.

Page 121, Line 17-20:
Three corrections officers approached the open door with a heavily shackled prisoner in their charge. He could barely walk on his own, either from the effects of heavy fatigue, the abuse he'd obviously taken from his cellmates overnight, or both.

Yeah. Being denied sleep for one night does not, in my experience, leave healthy youngish men unable to walk. That suggests that it's the "abuse" that's leaving the prisoner walking all bow-legged. And by "abuse" I'm assuming we're meant to think "sodomy". Stay classy, authors! Anyway, the prisoner is seated and the cops depart, leaving him with Kearns.

Page 121, Line 28:
"Daniel Carroll Bailey?" [Kearns asked, marveling that his middle name is "Carroll"]

Wow! I am not surprised at all by this shocking turn of events! This book has so many twists and turns, it's like watching paint dry! Anyway, Bailey asks if Kearns is his lawyer, Kearns answers that he's not, threatens Bailey with a long and hard prison sentence without actually specifying the charge, and then shows Bailey his ID before delivering the punchline.

Page 122, Line 27-29:
"I've [Kearns] got nine words for you that I'll bet you never thought you'd be so glad to hear," he said. "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."

Ha! See, it's funny because the government never helps! Silly government, with it's dumb roads and shit. When will it learn?

Well, not this week, because we've reached the end of the chapter. Come back next time when Kearns reveals more of his cunning plan, Bailey makes an ass of himself, and we're bored by the leaden prose.


* Yes, I actually went and found a machine readable copy. I found two of them, thanks for asking, and the linked one is more readable.



Blogger Ken Houghton said...

I'm developing a deep envy of Eli Churchill. Not only is he a Jewish Brit, but he took one bullet to the brain and it was lights out.

We, meanwhile, are now 16 chapters in, waiting for the lights--any lights--to turn on.

It's like being a Morlock without Yvette Mimieux's heavy blue eye shadow for distraction.

Friday, June 03, 2011 11:37:00 AM  
OpenID sassafrasjunction said...

So far, the most interesting things to happen (and I use the word "interesting" loosely) have been a secret volcano lair never since referred to and Danny boy's implied butt rape.

When those two things are the heart and soul of your novel, it's time to start a new profession. Hopefully one where you can putter about the grounds and not harm anyone.

Saturday, June 04, 2011 4:53:00 AM  

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