Fat Books & Thin Women


Review: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers
November 20, 2012, 1:37 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

The conceit behind Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is fantastic: the long-awaited Rapture finally comes, decimating lives and families not only because of the sudden disappearance of so many people, but because the people who are left behind are so often the ones who had held some expectation of being raptured themselves. The religious are left to grapple with the meaning of an event that is commonly thought of as “the rapture” but that doesn’t match their own conceptions of what that event should be, while others focus their concerns more on the day-to-day of life without a husband, a child, or in the case of one woman, her entire family.

Perotta doesn’t get too far into the details of the event, the Sudden Departure, which sort of works within the confines of this novel. In other areas, that vagueness becomes frustrating, as some of Perotta’s characters seem more markers of a character type than real people. The Leftovers is a loosely plotted novel with more of a focus on the courses of characters’ lives (or more correctly, in some cases, their emotional lives) than on the political or social events that follow the Sudden Departure. The downside of this is that the social, largely religious, movements Perotta describes, often seem too vaguely realized to warrant serious consideration on the readers’ part. The prophet Holy Wayne, the Guilty Remnant cult, the Barefoot People who in reaction to the rapture devote themselves to the pursuit of pleasure, read more as devices for moving characters’ lives than as actual, explicable, movements.

If there’s one thing Perotta gets right here, it’s the sense of a transitional moment. His characters, by and large, are trying to figure out their lives after they have been so rudely disrupted by the disappearance of loves ones, either to the Sudden Event itself or to the emerging groups like the Guilty Remnant cult, which requires not only that its members stop speaking, but that they cut off ties to their former lives – with the only exceptions coming when they appear to haunt, in a sense, their former families on a holiday.

Perotta’s prose is fairly unadorned and makes for easy reading, and works best with his youngest characters, where he can most easily display that sense of transition. There’s Jill, daughter of the mayor of Mapleton, the town where the novel finds its center, who is dealing with the loss of her mother to the Guilty Remnant and her brother to the prophet Holy Wayne, and whose attempts to find herself are the typical teenager moves of drastic haircuts and ill-advised friendships and romantic pursuits. Her brother, Tom, who drops out of school to follow Holy Wayne, and who then becomes infatuated with one of the prophet’s teenaged wives, spends much of the novel with no clear sense of his direction after the prophet’s fall from grace. The fumbling efforts of Perotta’s teenaged characters to find themselves following the Sudden Departure are believable precisely because they so closely mirror what these characters would be going through anyway. Given the shock of the disappearance of huge numbers of Mapleton’s residents, there’s no real question that the students at the local high school would feel unmoored, a loss of any clear direction in the face of the fact that so many lives were abruptly disappeared.

With the older characters, though, the lack of detail regarding either the event or the underpinnings of the religious movements that spring up in its wake, undermines the plotting. It’s not that it’s hard to believe that an adult’s life wouldn’t be disrupted when she saw her family, or the family of a friend, vanish, but that because the novel is so closely tied to Mapleton there is no real sense of scope. What makes the disappearances these men and women are dealing with different than the deaths of family members in a car accident, the loss of a spouse to an infidelity, a child who moves away and cuts off contact with the family? Perotta’s explanation of the Sudden Departure may be enough for the reader’s understanding, but it is not enough to illuminate so much of what comes later in the novel:

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn’t some ancient rumor – a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire – or a dusty homegrown legend, Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea. (2)

And that is about as clear an explanation of the event as Perotta will ever offer. This lack of detail places The Leftovers into a particular camp of cross-genre writing which treats the sci-fi-ish event at its heart as a jumping-off point rather than as an event worthy of explanation in its own right. I’m not going to deny having a certain fondness for this breed of writing, but its potential for failure becomes so evident in The Leftovers: that by failing to ever explain the Sudden Departure, or even to fully explore why it has such an overwhelming impact on lives not directly touched by the event, Perotta weakens the event that should be structuring and holding together his novel.

The Leftovers, at end, is a fun book, but it’s hard not to finish it with a sense of mild disappointment. Perotta closes with a sense of hope and movement, the idea that people might find a way to move past the event into restructured lives, but with so little exploration of why this event has had such an outsize impact on the social and religious structure of this town – even accepting that such changes are the obvious outcome of such an event – it’s hard to care too much about these characters and their vaguely explored reactions to the event. The Leftovers reads more like a thought experiment than like a fully-fledged novel, with an appealing plot device withering thanks to Perrotta’s apparent assumption that such a device might stand on its own, with no real development or explanation required over the course of the novel’s 350 pages.

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