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Friday, December 23, 2011

The Overton Window: Chapter 45

Welcome back one and all to our ongoing series on The Overton Window, the book that makes Fahrenheit-451 seem like a utopia. Last time Noah and Molly had a stupid fight, Noah jumped out of a moving car, and Molly was almost certainly killed by a nuclear weapon. What happens this week? Noah gets what we've wanted him to get all book. More or less.

As I mentioned I am once again selecting a comment of the week, and this week that "honor" goes to Jay for, frankly, hitting the nail on the head:

Let's follow Molly's logic here. If you knew the Nazis were killing large numbers of people, then you would be morally obligated to do something about it. Similarly, if you know the US government is killing people indiscriminately, Molly declares that you're morally obligated to stop it.

Now the logistics are unfortunate, because the US government is killing people in the middle east. Since neither political party seems likely to end this, there's nothing to do but go to the middle east and try to put a stop to it.

So, by Molly's logic, it's morally imperative to go to the middle east and oppose the American occupation. Apparently Molly is, and has always been, an al-Qaeda operative.

Or you can take the view that the constitution is the founding document of a republic, and that it's simply not possible to "live it" without granting a certain deference to the will of your fellow Americans, however stupid and bloodthirsty they may be at any given moment.

Indeed, the ridiculous irony of the entire book is that the sort of give-and-take and compromise that's necessary to make a democracy function is depicted as the exact antithesis of democracy. The key, we are told, to being a patriot is to zealously pursue whatever narrow self-interest you choose and to impose your will on the rest of your countrymen. And all I can say is that I'm glad we don't live in a world the authors' would like, because it's a horrid, oppressive place. Well done, Jay, and keep at it folks: we're nearing the finish line. Finally!

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.). Batteries not included.

Dramatis Personae: In an order determined by my department chair.

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. Molly's Mom. Injected with weed killer by parties unknown blisteringly obvious to everyone.

Noah Gardener: 28 years old. Sets the dating bar "medium-high". Works Vice president at a PR firm. Went to NYU. Is "witty". Frequently forgets where he's going and why. 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. Likes bacon. Considers himself to be good at word games. Wants to bang his mom.

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. Possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. Looks just like Noah's mom. Also looks just like Natalie Portman. Almost certainly dead from a nuclear blast.

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. Sodomized by inmates following the rally. Once dressed up as Colonel Sanders to infiltrate the United Nations. May be afraid of cats. Fast draw, terrible shot. Died pointlessly in a nuclear detonation.

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.

Stuart Kearns: FBI agent. Works on homeland security matters. Kinda old and wrinkly. Not particularly trusting. Lives in a double-wide trailer. Sixty-three years old. Died pointlessly in a nuclear detonation.

Mr. Puddles: AKA Gray Death. AKA Ninja Cat. Stuart's cat. Large. Dangerous looking. Possibly plotting his demise. Doomed to die of thirst/starvation/exposure.

Tiffany: A stripper at the Pussycat Ranch. Thinks Danny is awesome.

Ellen Davenport: Old friend of Noah's. Second-year neurology resident at Mt. Sinai. Doesn't appear to need sleep or have good taste in her associates.


Chapter 45: In which Noah gives us an excruciatingly dull account of harrowing torture, which is justified in passing.

Recommended Mood Music:

Page 271, Line 1-3:
It could have been most of the night that they worked him over. It could have been days for all he knew. All sense of time had left him while he was still out there on the road.

That wouldn't be a bad opener if we were in a Cormac McCarthy novel. Alas, however, we are not, and Noah is anything but a sympathetic protagonist. Anyway, Noah recalls that after the mysterious "they" had run out of methods for interrogating him where they were, they drove him to an airport, put him on a plane, and took him elsewhere. Presumably this is extraordinary rendition and it couldn't have happened to a more deserving fellow.

Page 271, Line 8-16:
They knew a lot already. They knew that calls had been made from Noah's apartment to a long list of accomplices of a known agitator who'd conspired to destroy an American city or two. They knew that Noah helped one of the central figures in this conspiracy gain access to classified files and information. They knew that he'd helped her evade security and fly across the country to play her part in the failed attack. They knew that two nuclear weapons had fallen into the hands of these terrorists, and that one of them had detonated but the other was still unaccounted for.

Ooooh- dramatic! Or... something? The odd thing is that of the above, almost all of it is true. The two bits that strike me as somewhat less than accurate, however, are as follows. First, Molly didn't play any part in the bomb plot except, you know, to get blown up by it at the end. Yay? Second, it's weird to me that the other bomb would still be unaccounted for if they knew that there were two bombs to start with. I say that because the fissile material used in nuclear weapons is generally traceable, even after a detonation, with the right equipment. So, really, the U.S. should have been able to discern pretty rapidly that, yep, both weapons were present in the explosion. But whatever- who needs facts in this faction, anyhoo? Regardless, it's revealed that after a while a new group of interrogators get into the act with a new method: terror. No, really, that's what it says in the text.

Page 272, Line 5-13:
Strapped flat to a cold metal table, head immobilized and inclined to be lower than the feet, a wet cloth over the face to restrict his breathing- and then just a slight dripping of water, maybe half a glass, just enough to begin to run down his nostrils and into the throat. Some primitive part of the mind simply comes unhinged when it knows it's drowning and knows it can't get away. Try to be as strong as you want; it doesn't matter. If he'd actually known anything at all that they wanted to learn, before ten seconds had passed he would have told them, and they would have known he was telling the truth. [emphasis added]

Okay, so, first off, as descriptions of waterboarding go, that ain't bad, except that it's too clinical. A little first-person narration rather than this shit from a training manual would have been more compelling. Second, however, check out that last line- the bit about knowing that he was telling the truth. Seriously? Do we seriously believe that, crazy authors? Do you really believe that people being tortured are incapable of lying? Because they're not. See, when you torture someone you may get them to the point where they're willing to tell you anything just to get the torture to stop, but when we say "anything" we mean anything. It doesn't have to be true, it doesn't have to have a basis in fact, they just have to believe that if they tell it to you, they'll stop getting tortured. And therein lies the problem with torture- it provides the motivation, but unless you can independently verify what you're given, it's liable to be crap. Even worse, there's always the temptation to torture just a bit more to make sure you've got everything, thereby creating the temptation for the victim to start lying to satisfy you, which then reinforces your belief that you should torture still more to get the next bit of hidden intel. Torture an innocent man long enough and he'll tell you enough to "validate" the use of torture. And whether the information is good or not, you've still dishonored yourself.* But, hey, if the authors want to justify the utility of torture even as their own protagonist is being tortured by the bad guys, well, by all means! As the description goes on, it's revealed that the interrogators claim that they've worked over both Molly and Molly's mother, who gave up Noah's entire involvement. It doesn't seem to occur to Noah that, aside from desperately wanting inside Molly's pants, he's not really involved, and instead he focuses on something dumb.

Page 272, Line 21-26:
After all they'd put him through, Noah would have gladly believed almost anything they'd said, but even to his clouded, brutalized mind these last two assertions didn't ring true- those two [Molly and her mom] would never betray their cause. If Molly was going down, she would go down swinging and silent. Knowing that gave Noah the first bit of hope that he'd had in a long time.

I swear this moron has Stockholm syndrome. Although he's right, Molly has not in fact given him up to the authorities. Granted, it's because her corpse is tangled up in the melted, radioactive wreck of a rental car, but that's beside the point. Anyway, the authors continue to describe Noah's harrowing torture, eventually giving us this gem:

Page 272, Line 29-31:
They seemed to take his complete lack of useful knowledge as a sign of stubborn resistance to their questioning. And, after all, you never know when a valuable little nugget of intel might surface.

Right, and that is exactly my point about torture: how do you tell the difference between resistance and ignorance? Well, you can't, so you just keep torturing until you run out of time or they tell you something, thereby justifying (to you) the torture. Can someone please tell me why we're still having this kind of debate about jurisprudence? Regardless, the narrative indicates that at this point the torture suddenly stops, the interrogators clean Noah up and make him look less like he's been getting tortured, and they put their tools away. Visit from the Red Cross perhaps? Yeah, I'm guessing not.

Page 273, Line 13-18:
A number of dark plastic surveillance domes were distributed across the ceiling. The chief interrogator looked up at one of the cameras and made a gesture to those watching to indicate that the subject was now ready to receive his guest. On that cue, the tiny red lights of the surveillance cameras winked out in sequence.

A few seconds later, a figure appeared in the open doorway.

Jesus does the writing in this book suck. I mean, "...made a gesture to those watching to indicate that the subject was ready..."? Couldn't they have just written "...gave a thumbs up"? It would have been much, much more evocative and would have told us exactly the same damned thing. And what is going on here? Who is so secret that his or her presence is actually more shocking than actual torture?

Well, if you want to know you'll have to come back next week, because this is the end of an admittedly short and stupid chapter. So, join us then when we reveal Noah's mystery guest and get to listen to yet another stupid speech.


* A great fictional treatment of these issues, actually, can be found in Susan R. Matthews' "An Exchange of Hostages"



Blogger Ken Houghton said...

That's an entire chapter?

Worst of all, it feels short. For once, I wanted more detail, more about Noah's suffering. Did they break his fingers? Attach electrodes in sensitive areas? Give him 39 lashes (with or without wet noodle)?

Apparently, he hasn't even been blindfolded, let alone sleep-deprived, just flown somewhere probably at taxpayer expense.

From the description so far, his "torture" is something one of Molly's friends could have done with a Dribble Glass.

Friday, December 23, 2011 9:59:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If Molly was going down, she would go down swinging and silent. Knowing that gave Noah the first bit of hope that he'd had in a long time.

"Swinging and silent" is how everyone likes their blowjobs, amirite?!

Friday, December 30, 2011 9:22:00 AM  

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