Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Overton Window

Target demographic:
Beckanalian Beckolytes 
My antithetical demographic:
Squishy bearded liberal. I don't even have Fox News

The cover of Glenn Beck’s novel, The Overton Window, features the typical poorly designed thriller layout: the title in large type at the bottom, the author’s name in even larger type at the top, and paranoia inducing artwork underneath. A Statue of Liberty like figure stares out into a faceless sea of skyscrapers. The tone is all blue and looming, with a spattering of birds flying up into the dark clouds. It’s an awful cover. There’s even a lens flare.

Unfortunately the back isn’t any better. More than half of it is devoted to a portrait of the man himself, Glenn Beck. He’s decked out his standard issue shit-eating, ain’t I a stinker grin.
The rest of the back cover features pull quotes, with the most gushing and, frankly unbelievable, parts bolded and capitalized for easy scanning.

Both sides of the dust jacket are embarrassing for me to display. The front looks awful even without Beck’s prominently displayed name, and the back seethes with his smarmy mug. Since I got it from a library, I can’t even take the jacket off: they taped the damn thing to the book. Carrying it around is a never-ending exercise in Sisyphean obfuscation. The least embarrassing position for this book is open. Unfortunately that’s also the worst position for this book to be in.

Ostensibly, this is a thriller and, it follows, a work of fiction. Besides the giveaway thriller artwork, it is also labeled as such at the bottom of the cover. What's more, Beck has written a helpful "Note from the Author," that not only clarifies his intentions, but also shows an astonishing knack for catachresis:
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.
C'mon, man! That's already a word, you can't just use it in any way you want to! Who do you think you are? Humpty Dumpty?

Apparently, he also thinks he's Bakhtin. Later in the author's note he inadvertently defines heteroglossia:
While this may go without saying even once, I feel the need to say it again: This is a work of fiction. As such some of the characters in this book express opinions that I not only disagree with, but vehemently oppose. I included them in the story because these views, like them or not, are part of the current American dialogue. Ignoring them, or pretending that radical ideas don't exist in society, does all of us a great disservice. Silencing voices or opinions only pushes them to the shadows and darkness, where they can fester and grow even stronger.
Totally different people.
Of course, his intention here seems to be a completely unnecessary disclaimer. Considering Beckolytes seem to have some difficulty in critical analysis, however, it's probably a good thing to warn them about the very basis of the modern novel.

I'm a little reluctant to call this a novel, though. It's really more of a screed. I wanted plop myself down and tear through this thing like a bag of popcorn. For the most part, you can do that, but the book is considerably clogged with unpopped kernels of passionate monologues about the state of the world today. Every major character gets one and they can be divided into two basic types: the bad guys and the good guys. Both of them come from a fundamental belief that the world is moving towards a terrible end. This is all basically eschatology 101, but replace the Rapture with internment camps for everyone, and the Antichrist with an oligarchy of progressives.

I wanted to ignore all this nonsense, but the book forces its politics on you. There is a plot, and it goes something like this: Noah Gardner, an impossibly handsome and super smart PR dude meets Molly Ross, an impossibly attractive tattooed militant Right-wing nut. She exposes him to a very Tea Party like organization called Founders Keepers, but things are not as they seem. Arthur Isiah Gardner (AIG?), Noah's dad and owner of an impossibly successful PR agency, is putting the finishing touches on his plans for a one world government that would make Marx blush. Part of his plan involves detonating a nuclear device in Las Vegas. This will make the population clamor for oligarchical rule. But, thank God, Molly Ross's buddy, Internet conspiracy theorist sensation Danny Bailey and a possibly rogue CIA agent detonate the bomb in the middle of the Nevada desert. Meanwhile, as Molly drives to meet up with Danny for some undisclosed reason, Noah hops out of the vehicle and sacrifices himself to police brutality.

If that sounds somewhat incoherent, it's because it is. Chapters not involving proselytizing are short, and the exposition and plot points are fast and loose. When the book pauses to transcribe an impassioned speech, the chapters can stretch out to an astonishing ten pages, otherwise they're about two. Clearly we know where Beck's motivations lie.

And that's really my biggest problem with this whole venture. I want my books to ask questions not answer them. In an interview with Bill O'Rielly about The Overton Window (where he also tries to use "faction" again), Beck points out that the book is to "Get you to think out of the box," Good, "and its also to get you to be able to give it to your friends who you've got this close... they just need a little story to help them." BAD! There's enough shitty novels on the market, you don't need to make one as an excuse for your stupid rhetoric. Beck even goes so far as to include an afterword at the end of the novel (which he mistakenly labels as "the last chapter" in the above interview) that includes a short "what did we learn today?" section as well as a long list of citations and silliness.

Of course, if you stripped away all that nonsense, you'd have an even more insubstantial book than you already have. You'd also have an incredibly unbelievable pamphlet of prose. Since the title page lists three contributors to the book, I can only assume that Beck gave a very rough outline of his idea and told his contributors to run with it. But they didn't run with it very well, instead they kind of trotted ahead, fell over and went home. Between overwrought metaphors and absolutely unbelievable scenarios, the prose makes it very difficult to suspend disbelief, not just in the likelihood of Beck's paranoid delusions, but in the idea that these people could actually exist at any point in time. Noah Gardner is primarily motivated by poontang, unless he isn't. Molly Ross is primarily motivated by her principals, unless she isn't. There is a nascent love affair between them, but there isn't. I have to say, it's strangely difficult to understand the two main character's motivations for anything they do, and not in a good way. Molly and Noah's relationship is consistently inaccessible. Noah gets screwed by Molly and her group in every possible non-carnal way. Let me remind you that Molly's group are the good guys here. Unlike Noah's dad, they are motivated not only by a preservation of the Founding Father's apparently infallible writings but also by a belief in the fundamental good of humanity. So why are they such assholes?

That's probably my biggest problem with Beck. I wish I didn't have to address my distaste for Beck, in large part because I don't even think he's worth it, but The Overton Window is practically dripping with his bile. If you strip away all of his theatrics, I guess I don't totally disagree with Beck. Superficially he advocates personal responsibility and, perhaps more importantly, a personal curiosity, but he drenches it in such craziness, condescension and myopia that he drives me bonkers. Beck can't stand the thought that there are other opinions than his. Instead of engaging in those alternate ideas, however, he wraps them all up into a big heaping bag of conspiracy and paranoia. He advocates personal curiosity, but doesn't practice it. He's a frustrating guy.

After I finished The Overton Window I thought I would cleanse my soul with some of brilliant anarcho-feminist Voltairine De Cleyre's essays. It struck me how similar De Cleyre's "Anarchism and American Traditions" is to many of the ideas Beck advocates in The Overton Window. Small government, belief in the importance of community protests, free speech, suspicion of federal government sponsored public schools. Anarchism and Libertarianism are a lot closer than either party would like to admit. My personal jury is out on both movements, but I can't deny the attractiveness of believing in people's fundamental goodness, in grasping on to that, of saying people will help each other if only we gave them the chance, if only we eliminated all the crap we have to deal with, all the deadening media and bureaucracy we've created for ourselves...

Holy shit. Did Glenn Beck just get me to think? Or was it Voltairine De Cleyre working in opposition? I don't know, but I'm perfectly comfortable admitting that a book that is fundamentally a piece of crap can have some positive effects. Hell, it can even have some positive traits. Though the afterword ties everything up into a "The More You Know" bow, the story itself ends with at least some ambiguity and darkness. We know that Molly escaped evaporation, and is working behind the scenes. Noah is now in cahoots with the enemy, his father's PR firm, though his is in his position solely to exploit their weaknesses and gather intel for the Founders Keepers, how he plans to do so is never explained. Of course, I have to take even these small concessions with a large grain of salt. This ambiguity, is not Pynchonesque, obviously. Beck is setting himself up for a sequel, despite absolutely no need for one. Additionally, even Noah's subversion is imperfect. Apparently, after being exposed to the truth of the Founder's mission, he can't help himself from inadvertently letting such truth seep into the PR exercises he's been doing for his father. The Platonic Truth of the Founders is so luminous, that once you enter back into the cave you can't help but blather about it in spite of yourself.

This book was embarrassing to read; even when the only person to see me holding it was my cat, I was still self-conscious. I guess I just don't get it. Beck has a television show and a radio show. He's released several non-fiction rambles. Hell, he's even written a Christmas book. Why branch out into thriller territory? Are there untapped conservatives who only expose themselves to cheap-o thrillers? At the same time, the book seems to be self-limiting. It seems like it would work best in a pocket Beckaverse. Once, I started doing a little bit of research, I realized how intimately the entire book is related to Beck's self-contained sphere of ideas. He's alluded to the Overton Window on his show on multiple occasions and revealed its insidious influence on American Politics. And you know that Statue of Liberty like figure I alluded to on the cover? It's "an amalgam of the Statue of Liberty and the Colossus of Rhodes." I know this not only because it gets a shout out in the book page 142, where a figure of the same description sits symbolically in AIG's office, but also because Beck has discussed the history of the Statue of Liberty and the Colossus of Rhodes on his show. Here, there's a mislabeled segment on YouTube. When I saw this expansion of the blip of an art history idea that was pointed out in the book, I realized that there's an enormous Beck-hole that I have no interest in falling into. What strange things, could I find in there? Who knows, but if it's anything like The Overton Window, I'll keep my finger out of it.

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