Sunday, March 06, 2005

Cult Watch Novels and The Post Office

Given that the Church of Scientology has recently opened up a new branch in the hip LA neighborhood of Los Feliz, it's time to comment on a novel I recently read, The Program, by Gregg Hurwitz.

The Program is basically an infilitrate-and-rescue thriller, with a fairly standard nice-troubled-violent hero-cop who rather predictably has fallen into trouble with his superiors. He contracts his services--for this one job--to a kind of ad hoc committee that includes his old division and a cranky self-involved millionaire father who wants his step-daughter extracted from a mind-control cult. The mind-control cult resembles the Scientologists, basically, but with a vastly accelerated schedule of conversion and a sex-obsessed Dear Leader.

The descriptions of how cults like this use atmosphere and body rhythms to screw people up are quite interesting. Apparently, the key factors in a convention-style event are: manipulating people's sense of time, ambient temperature, releasing normal inhibitions, abusive role-playing, and extracting confessions that can then be used to tug at your mental strings. Hurwitz also conveys the schizophrenia of cultists who can ardently and totally believe in the truth of their practices, while simulteneously creating elaborate and deceptive illusions for new adherents.

It's a smart genre thriller that involved some research to make. But what really caught my eye in the book wasn't the cult. It was the postmaster.

Let me explain. The police have a hell of a time justifying an intervention into the cult compound because, apparently, you can abuse consenting adults to your heart's content. (The S&M community has also figured out a legal strategy.) So the plot will eventually turn around a misdemeanor offense. Hurwitz chooses mail fraud, and to explain the crime, Hurwitz creates a USPS zealot, a man defined and obsessed by his profession just like in the best Dickensian novels. The postmaster doesn't interact with the other characters so much as he harranges everyone.

And his soapbox creed is one that does deserve more respect. The USPS is faster than the French Poste, cheaper than the German Post, and more consistent than any of the private delivery services in the US. The Postmaster points out that a 37-cent stamp will get you a letter from the Florida to Alaska--a vast continent of service--and a legally enforced contract between the sender and the post office that that letter will be delivered to the addressee. The mere fact that the Post Office bothers to maintain a dead letter office, sorry, Mail Recovery Center, instead of automatically chucking out mail that can't reach either an addressee or a sender, speaks volumes about the seriousness with which it approaches its task.

Speaking of dead letter offices, to bring in the mail service as Hurwitz does is also a cool high-literary nod. It's an uninsistent thriller-version of Melville and Pynchon's themes, even if its spokesperson is principly characterized by his insistence.

Anti-cult thrillers are neat enough, but what I really want is more mail literature! More!


Post a Comment

<< Home