When we last saw John and Joy, they were… riding in a limousine?

Anyway, John monologues more platitudes to himself about whether or not it’s moral to play God and be judge, jury, and executioner, but none of this intrapersonal conflict will ever be brought up again, so it really doesn’t matter.

I reached the front door of my faculty apartments at 5:30. (page 31)

Wait, weren’t they in the limousine by now? This narration is jumping around. Could this be the time travel?

Nah, it’s just stupidity.

I actually wish it were the time travel, then the plot would pick itself up after it collapsed while jogging somewhere around Hot For Student land.


Moving on…

Apparently this limo would pick Joy up from school, back when she was younger. I guess she was one of those spoiled rich kids who flaunted her family’s wealth in everyone’s face or something. She then brags about how she beat up a bunch of boys back in grade school or something, even breaking the legs of one boy unfortunate enough to try to use the element of surprise against her.

Now, Joy is a sociopath. She takes utter delight in all the times she maims or kills someone, especially later on. She never feels sorry about it at all. Rummel probably did not mean to make Joy into a sociopath, but whenever John argues with her on what they should do to their enemies, she always suggests the more bloodthirsty option, with a kind of relish that would make me want to back away slowly. To top it off, her ego is enormous. But Joy is not the only character who is completely ruthless whilst being presented by the narrator as a paragon of virtue. Apparently, the father of the student whose leg Joy broke sued Tor over the incident. Instead of acting like how a reasonable person would, Tor went so far as to sic a private investigator on the poor student’s father. There is literally no cause for this; Joy was clearly in the wrong, and the father had not done anything worthy of suspicion. Yet when she relays the tale to John, Joy relishes in the fact that her mother blackmailed an innocent man just to get her daughter out of trouble. And these are supposed to be our heroes?

Despite getting his first inkling that Joy is completely psycho, John still cannot stop narrating how beautiful she is. Gag me.

John questions Joy, not about why she beat up the boys, but about how she was able to beat up the boys. We thus learn that Joy has been trained in karate and judo since she was four years old, and is skilled with knives.

It is at this point that I would be throwing all my weight at the limousine’s door and taking my chances with oncoming traffic over this creepy Knife Nut.1 But then of course, I am not completely infatuated with someone over whom I am in a position of power. By the way, my Sue-dometer just made some noise.2 You’ll see why in a moment.

John says something that I just have to quote, because it aptly summarizes my opinion of this whole book:

I felt like I’d sat down in the middle of a spy thriller—a lot was going on in the movie, the cinematography and directing were great, but I didn’t know the plot or who were the good or the bad guys. (pages 32-33)

Well… maybe not the parts about lots of things going on or about the cinematography and directing being great. That’s a whole other issue. It’s bland, pure and simple. That’s what the narration is. Did Rummel really find this entertaining when he reread it? Did he even reread it at all?

Anyway, Joy demands that John punch her. For once, John acts like a normal person and is rather bewildered. But alas, all his attempts to punch her lights out are blocked effortlessly. You are keeping an eye on the Sue-dometer, right?

And we get this deliciously innuendo-filled line:

“You must get to know me and my special . . . skills,” she responded,
with a curiously sensual emphasis on the last word. (page 34)

Rummel, you magnificent bastard.

Now, there is one misconception I may have inculcated into your minds. Joy, as we now learn, is actually twenty-five years old. She’s only one year younger than John, in fact. However, John does not learn this until the readers do, so it doesn’t make his lust for Joy any less sickening. In fact, his very next line is a rather loliconnish admittance that he thinks that Asian women look like they should be in middle school. I do not want to know what Rummel thinks of his Asian students now.

Joy apparently has a B.A. in political science from Berkeley and an M.A. in computer science from Princeton, which took her only two years to get. Why is my Sue-dometer making so much noise?

It turns out that the only reason that Joy was taking John’s class was because Tor, her mother, wanted to hear firsthand about John’s contribution to the democratic peace theory.3 Wait a minute, here. Rummel is the most well-known proponent of the democratic peace theory. John is just some rookie professor no one has ever heard of before. Did Rummel confuse himself with his character or something? Now I really don’t want to know what he thinks of his female students. Thank God I’m a guy.

Now is time for another Very Special Flashback Sequence, this time to Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. That’s where Tor is from, apparently. Now, I skipped over the last Very Special Flashback Sequence, but this one takes up most of the chapter in which it appears and is a bit more important to the plot, since it’s Tor’s backstory. (In fact, it’s the only Very Special Flashback Sequence in the entire book that I wouldn’t recommend excising in its entirety.) But I warn you, both you and your stomach will get very tired of these soon enough.

So in 1975, Tor lived with her husband Nguon, whom she would eventually name a business after, and who really has very little purpose in this whole flashback. The only reason he exists is so he can be killed by the Khmer Rouge to give Tor emotional baggage. Surprisingly, they aren’t worried at all that the Khmer Rouge has just taken over Cambodia. They’re just glad that the war is over. I would’ve suspected Rummel to have his characters lecture the readers on how evil the communists are before the democide even starts. However, this is not a good thing. Rummel’s saving up the horror and the filibustering for later. If he had done otherwise, he would have been unable to imply that the “ignorant Orientals” can see through the wiles of power-mad dictators without Western aid. There is also a short bit where it looks like Rummel is blaming the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge on people who are unwilling to “stay the course”. How pleasant!

We’re not even half a page in and I’m already sickened.

Somehow Tor’s face is still beautiful, even though the narrator implies that she had been starving for some time. Human metabolism, what’s that?

By the way, Tor’s past self is the second character in the whole book whose dress is described. I’d say that John entertains some truly bizarre fantasies, but he actually isn’t the narrator for this part. Joy is. There is absolutely no reason for us to know what Tor is wearing. It doesn’t matter, particularly considering that she lives in Cambodia in 1975.

(I am deliberately trying to avoid acknowledgement of that fact. So far Rummel could have been writing a short vignette about a pair of high school sweethearts for all we know.)

So far, every Cambodian character, even Tor’s past self, has expressed nothing but support for the Khmer Rouge. None of them are even slightly worried about what might happen to them now that a hostile army has taken over and occupied their country. I know what Rummel’s doing here. He is doing exactly what the authors of every single Holocaust novel that poor unsuspecting seventh-graders are forced to read has done: show the character’s lives before everything goes to hell. Unfortunately, we see almost nothing of their lives before the Killing Fields.

We see some more of Rummel subtly (and I hope to God unintentionally) implying that the “intellectuals” supported the Khmer Rouge, in some perverse attempt at dramatic irony. He does know who Pol Pot’s first victims were, right? Right?

The first indication that something is wrong is when Tor and Nguon hear gunfire and see the Khmer Rouge attacking people. But instead of actually being worried, like any rational person would be, Nguon just speculates that some government forces just don’t know when to quit. Does Rummel want us to sympathize with Nguon or not? He’s being an idiot.

Tor and Nguon get rounded up by the guerrillas. Do I really have to keep sporking this?

I’m trying to gloss over this as quickly as I can, in part because I really don’t want to act like a troll, and in part because Rummel’s writing actually isn’t that bad here. The portrayal of 1970s Cambodia is just as horrific as it was in real life. Since this scene is in third person, Rummel’s emotionally detached narration actually works, since it captured the horror and insanity of the situation. Now, as a general rule, anything bad you have heard about the Killing Fields is probably less severe then what really went on, so I cannot attack Rummel for having the villains of this flashback be pointlessly evil. They’d make the Nazis look like saints.

And then Rummel has the characters pointlessly exposit:

“Neither do I,” Nguon replied. “There were rumors of the Khmer Rouge evacuating towns that they controlled before the war ended, forcing everyone to be peasants in the fields, and shooting former government officials and all captured officers. We all thought that was government propaganda.” (page 40)

A few problems: the dialogue is stilted, Rummel has already given the readers this information, and anyone passingly familiar with the subject matter would already know it. It would be like someone writing a novel about the Holocaust, only to have the characters discuss among themselves the details of the Final Solution. I would have suggested Rummel forgo the science-fiction aspects of his story entirely, and write about historical democides and the effects they had on everyone involved, but then he ruins it with his bad dialogue. Like this sentence, for instance:

“Pech hates anyone who is unenthusiastic for the revolution.” (page 45)

Something tells me that the actual victim of an atrocity like this would not describe her oppressor in a manner befitting the antagonist of an educational program for children. What was Rummel thinking, that we’re all too dumb to figure out for ourselves that the Khmer Rouge were puppy-kicking bastards to a man?

I should also point out that Rummel has his villains use a lot of profanity. And I do mean a lot of profanity. I guess it’s supposed to show that they’re hardened killers, or that they want to intimidate their victims, but most of it comes off as gratuitous. It happens in every extended flashback, not just this one. I guess Rummel really couldn’t think of anything else for his villains to be than vulgar, even in contexts where it makes no sense. Another linguistic oddity is that all the Cambodian characters use modern, American slang. I understand that the Translation Convention is in effect, and that the characters are meant to be “really” speaking Khmer, but it’s just something that has been noticed that detracts from the authenticity and makes the whole flashback sound artificial.

In case you were wondering, at this point Tor is hearing the testimony of a fellow inmate in the Killing Fields. This other woman goes into graphic detail about how the Khmer Rouge treat their prisoners, but Tor, who is also a prisoner, should already know this. Yet she acts as if all this is news to her. I think Rummel really thinks that his audience needs everything explained.

Oh, and I take back some of what I said about his writing style actually working here. There’s still far too much telling, and not enough showing. For instance, Tor doesn’t actually have emotions, she “remembers” her emotions. One could say that she can’t show any emotions because the soldiers will kill anybody who does show emotions, but that is not what I am talking about. A person can still have emotions, but deliberately suppress them, like if they were in the Killing Fields. However, Tor doesn’t even do that. We just have to take Rummel’s word that she isn’t a robot.

But perhaps she’s just that traumatized? Well, that idea doesn’t work, as will be seen later on. She doesn’t show any indication of being traumatized, either. Tor’s emotionlessness is entirely due to Rummel’s laziness.

This flashback is so long that it needs to split into parts. (In fact, it takes up the whole remainder of this chapter.) Ordinarily, this would not be a bad thing. However, the formatting of this novel can lead to confusion. The transition between the main story and this flashback was marked by three symbols that resemble lightning bolts, which don’t even cause a line break. Then, the flashback’s internal transition has exactly the same punctuation, albeit with a line break this time. At first, I thought that this meant the flashback was over, but that’s not the case. This book was vanity published, so I can only assume that Rummel did not have a proofreader.

Another problem, particularly in this scene, is Rummel’s occasional insertion of something completely inappropriate. Starting after the line break, he recounts one of the most horrifying scenes in the entire book series, let alone this particular installment. Leaving out all the really gruesome bits, it’s about an inmate that Nguon had befriended, who is tricked by the soldiers into revealing that he is a teacher, thus leading to his death by children. This scene is so horrifying that it makes you want to agree with Rummel about the democratic peace theory. However, immediately before this scene happens, we get what appears to be slapstick. What. The. HELL?!

A month later a squad of soldiers stopped at the village to rest, and happened to pass by Mey’s outdoor class. One of the soldiers halted so suddenly that the one behind him almost bumped into him. (page 47)

Was there a point to that paragraph at all?! Really? Really. It contributed absolutely nothing to the scene and just should not be there. The Khmer Rouge were terrifying, not the Three Stooges. There is absolutely no reason for it. Might I remind you, this scene happens immediately before an innocent man is hanged by the group of children that he was put in charge of, who were told that they were playing a game. This is so horribly disrespectful, I don’t know what to say.

Also during this scene, Rummel goes into a completely unnecessary description of the weather. It was apparently a perfect day on this man’s execution, so he was clearly trying to subvert the pathetic fallacy, but at no other point in the book is the weather described. It’s needless and should have been cut.

Now, back to the plot. Unfortunately, the Very Special Flashback Sequence still has not ended.

After witnessing their friend’s public execution, Nguon and Tor plot their escape. Nguon says that they must leave that night, and Tor says that they aren’t ready. Nguon quite justifiably wants to kill the bastards who put them where they are, but knows that if he did that, both he and Tor would die. Apparently the two of them have been stockpiling food and other supplies, knowing that that would get them killed if they were discovered, and keeping them bundled in a raincoat buried under a pile of rocks beneath a tree. I have the feeling that that would never work in a million years.

When it comes time for them to escape, all they do is walk out of their tent in the middle of the night. Incredibly, this actually works. There are no guards stationed at night to prevent this sort of thing from happening, and the two of them make it across the field and into the woods. If it were that easy to escape, you’d think that people would have left the Killing Fields in droves. This scene is spitting on the memories of the people Pol Pot had murdered. Worst of all, it’s almost certain that the following morning, when the soldiers discover that two people have escaped, that they will execute two others in retaliation. However, Rummel does not go into what happens in the camp after Tor and Nguon escape. After all, it’s not like any other victims had names. For a few paragraphs, it actually looks like they might escape unscathed. Apparently Nguon knows how to get all the way to Thailand, even though they have been kidnapped by the revolutionaries and brought out to the middle of nowhere. For all he knows, they could be much closer to the eastern border with Vietnam, but of course they would never escape to Vietnam because Vietnam is a communist country. Never mind that the Vietnamese army actually fought against the Khmer Rouge, and that Thailand was also a dictatorship in the 1970s. Vietnam would probably have been the lesser of two evils. Now, if it had been explicitly stated that they were closer to Thailand, that would be one thing, but the readers do not know where the characters are. A smaller problem is that Nguon knows which way is west by how moss grows on trees. Except that moss doesn’t actually always grow on the north side of trees, so he could just be leading Tor around in circles.

Tor and Nguon travel west for several days, with only the limited supplies that they had managed to sneak from the camp they were in. In true hack novelist fashion, this harrowing journey is not described at all, leading the readers to believe that the two encounter no trouble at all until right when they reach the border with Thailand. In real life, wilderness survival is more complicated than this. One needs shelter, food, and water, and I doubt that Tor and Nguon were able to sneak enough food away to last an unspecified number of days without being discovered, nor is it likely that there is a convenient stream available for them to drink from. There is a line break for no adequately explained reason. The scene does not warrant one. Before the line break the couple was almost past the last village before the border, and after the line break they’ve passed that village.

Is that it? Are our protagonists actually going to escape the most horrible atrocity ever to occur in human history without a hitch? No, because a rainstorm happens at the worst possible moment. I would like to remind everyone here that Cambodia is a tropical country, so rainstorms are serious business. They typically last for weeks on end.

And so, Nguon slips on a rock and breaks his ankle. This may be the first diabolus ex machina in this series, but it won’t be the last. He tells Tor to make a splint out of the branches laying around, and the cloth that they inexplicably had with them.

Then we get this:

Tor got up and staggered over the unfamiliar ground in the drizzling rain, searching for a fallen branch. Finding one, she returned to her bag, pulled out her knife, and cleaned the branch of leaves and twigs. (page 52)

Wait a minute, Tor has a knife? Has Rummel forgotten that Tor and Nguon have just escaped the Killing Fields of Cambodia? There is positively no way that the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge would have neglected to search through all of their belongings and confiscate any weapons. An obvious Ass Pull if there ever was one.

Of course, the real reason Rummel had Nguon break his ankle is revealed in the following paragraph. It only happened in order to slow the two of them down enough for a Khmer Rouge patrol to discover them. You know, a far better way to have that happen would be as a consequence of them not knowing how to survive in the wilderness. The way it is here, right before they’re safe, comes off as contrived in the extreme.

Naturally, Nguon tells Tor to leave him behind and run. Tor initially refuses, saying that she will die with him. Nguon says that she must tell everyone about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Apparently this is enough to make Tor want to live.

So she manages to escape the soldiers (again) but Nguon gets shot. Considering what would probably have happened to him if his wound got infected, this is probably a mercy kill. Also, there is no indication that Tor took the supplies with her. There is another line break, but at least this one is somewhat justified.

Remember how the narrator said that Tor and Nguon were almost at the border? Well, apparently it still takes Tor days to reach Thailand. If Nguon hadn’t died, would they have had enough supplies for both of themselves? At least Tor is smart and uses the Sun as a compass instead of moss, in a tropical area.

When it was cloudy, she determined west by where the moss grew the thickest on the tree trunks. (page 53)

Or maybe not. Just when I thought the characters would start to be intelligent. Aye aye aye…

Once again, Rummel describes Tor’s physical appearance. While she is bleeding and bruised all over, I’m pretty sure that she should be very malnourished by now. After all, not only was she in the Killing Fields, but she was described as suffering from starvation before the Khmer Rouge even took over. She should barely have the energy to move. Furthermore, I doubt that she was able to boil any water she found in conveniently placed streams. I only bring this up now instead of earlier because Rummel does not show any hint of this in his description. A person who went through what Tor goes through should be an absolute emaciated diseased mess. Keep this in mind. Good? OK.

And at that moment, a soldier approaches her.

You know what, this is really taking a long time. It would have been better for the climax of the escape to be Nguon’s demise. There is no indication of how close to the border Tor is, and we have already seen enough atrocities that I am pretty sure that even a communist would have concluded that the Khmer Rouge are bad by this point.

Tor still has her knife with her, but the soldier has a rifle. She still doesn’t have a fighting chance, despite how Rummel portrays the scene.

As she intended, the boy saw Tor’s genitals as she bent over. When she stood up and turned toward the boy, his eyes were round and his face was flushed. Naked, she glided toward him, murmuring huskily, “I want you. I want to fuck. Fuck me.” (page 54)

Remember what I said before about democide victims being emaciated diseased messes? Yeah, apparently Rummel’s not having it. Despite all the indignities she’s been through, Tor is still attractive enough to lull the soldier into a false sense of security, because she’s speshul. In real life, she probably would have been better off just stabbing the soldier with a knife and then running as fast as she could. I don’t care how repressed the soldier is, he is not going to find her sexy. There was no reason she had to do that before she killed him.

And another thing: the book states that Tor supposedly hid the knife behind her forearm. However, the way she approached the soldier would not have allowed the knife to remain concealed, since her forearms would have been clearly visible during her approach. This is more of Rummel not thinking things through.

There is another line break, and three more days pass. Tor is STILL not out of Cambodia. What was Nguon thinking when he said that all that separated them from freedom was a single village? Tor has been traveling for at least a week after Nguon’s death. It is only now that the lack of food, shelter, or proper clothing has gotten to Tor. Realistically, it should have happened while Nguon was still alive.

And without even knowing it, she arrives in Thailand. You would think that the actual border would be more heavily armed than a few villages near the border, especially considering that an escapee could just go around the villages. (In fact, I wonder why Nguon didn’t do that.)

We get this sentence:

She was in Thailand! (page 55)

Now, I understand that Tor should experience a lot of positive emotion once she discovers that she is safely in Thailand, but that sentence just looks awkward to me. It would be better phrased as, “Finally, she was in Thailand,” or, “At long last, she was in Thailand,” or just “She was in Thailand,” without the exclamation mark. I don’t think that exclamation marks should be anywhere outside of dialogue, but perhaps that’s just me. That sentence is also a paragraph unto itself. We get what should be an emotional scene of Tor putting a photograph of her husband4 in her locket, which the Khmer Rouge didn’t confiscate for some reason, and the chapter ends.

Wait a minute, if Joy was telling John the story of her mother, then how did she know about all of those minor details?


1 After all, you don’t just say that you’re skilled with lethal weapons in a casual conversation.

2 Think of a Geiger counter.

3 Only creationists more flagrantly abuse the word “theory”.

4 Flat What.

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  1. Lone Wolf on 13 November 2012, 14:51 said:

    However, immediately before this scene happens, we get what appears to be slapstick. What. The. HELL?!

    Well, it might be an attempt to invoke the fascist goose-step effect. Fascist goose-step, taken by itself, is quite funny, but nobody laughs, because everyone’s too afraid to laugh.

    Rummel’s style, however, seems too bland for that to work.

    And yeah, all the flashbacks, despite all the horrible stuff that happens in them, stop the plot in its tracks.

  2. Pryotra on 13 November 2012, 18:18 said:

    He does know who Pol Pot’s first victims were, right? Right?

    Probably not. If he mentioned that it went after intellectuals, people who wear glasses, and anyone who had a religion for some reason it would probably ruin his ‘great point’.

    hanged by the group of children that he was put in charge of, who were told that they were playing a game.

    I am going to have to call that out. At the age of five, I was aware that if someone hung, they would die. I wasn’t sure how, but I understood that they would die. I’m not saying that the hanging couldn’t have been done, I’m saying that I don’t think they’d have thought they were playing a game.

    I agree that the slapstick in this is completely inappropriate.

    This whole thing sounds like he’s reveling in the misery of it and using the pointless slaughter that was the Killing Fields to make his character look better. All that needed to be said was that Joy’s mother managed to survive the Killing Fields, John expresses horror, and the plot goes on. WE KNOW THAT THE KHMER ROUGE MADE THE NAZI’S LOOK LIKE KIND, CARING PEOPLE. Blast it all the other communist countries around them thought they were psycho. Stop beating us over the head with it.

  3. Lone Wolf on 13 November 2012, 19:02 said:

    BTW, Washington’ support for Khmer Rouge after they were driven out of power by Vietnam is a rather nasty strike on Democratic Peace Theory.

  4. Brendan Rizzo on 13 November 2012, 19:09 said:

    I am going to have to call that out. At the age of five, I was aware that if someone hung, they would die. I wasn’t sure how, but I understood that they would die. I’m not saying that the hanging couldn’t have been done, I’m saying that I don’t think they’d have thought they were playing a game.

    The narration specifically describes the hanging as though it were a game. Which just serves to make it worse.

    Washington’ support for Khmer Rouge after they were driven out of power by Vietnam is a rather nasty strike on Democratic Peace Theory.

    I was going to mention that, but couldn’t really find a place in the spork for it.

  5. Pryotra on 13 November 2012, 19:33 said:

    The narration specifically describes the hanging as though it were a game.

    Than that’s the author’s…creepiness. Unless this, or something very close to it, really happened, I’m more willing to assume that the author was going for the drama than that it’s something that would have happened. I’m not saying that kids weren’t involved in the killings. They reported people, told on their parents and did all kinds of horrid things. I just feel a little doubtful about their being told that it was a game.

    I must say that’s a rather creepy narration tactic though. I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not.

  6. Mark on 13 November 2012, 20:41 said:

    The narration specifically describes the hanging as though it were a game. Which just serves to make it worse.

    I guess it’d depend on how long the regime has been in place. There are accounts of children in North Korean work camps turning their parents in when they heard they were planning an escape. Then again, Rummel makes it sound as though the characters had only been in the Killing Fields for a few months, so I don’t know if that’s enough time for the children to be that indoctrinated.

    That said, the whole scene is pretty messed up.

    Somehow Tor’s face is still beautiful, even though the narrator implies that she had been starving for some time. Human metabolism, what’s that?

    Nobody’s face is beautiful after starving for that long. Rummel is an idiot.

  7. Lone Wolf on 14 November 2012, 03:57 said:

    ~ Asian women are always beautiful and sexy ~

  8. Northmark on 14 November 2012, 19:57 said:

    What’s the context for the soldiers almost bumping into each other? I read it as less slapstick and more “something was surprising/shocking enough to make them stop suddenly”