As I admitted in my Brooklyn Book Festival post, at some point in the last few years, I got snobby about Tom Perrotta. In my head, his work became a little too easy, too commercial, for my taste. This, even though I’ve really liked the books of his that I’ve read as I read them. I don’t really know what my problem was–the movies that have been made, his general success, misplaced snark–I don’t know. Luckily, I saw him read a snip from his newest novel, The Leftovers, heard him speak, got over myself and got the novel.
The Leftovers is the story of the aftermath of a nonreligious (or, as some factions see it, a religious) rapture. Rapture, I mean, capital R. One day, a huge chunk of the world’s population disappears, never to return. The novel focuses on the Garvey family–the father Kevin, who is a new town mayor, trying to hold it together, the mother, Laurie, who leaves her family to join a cult called the Guilty Remnant, the daughter Jill, who deals with her new life in the way most teenagers know how–sex, drugs, the wrong crowd, and the son, Tom, who finds comfort in a false prophet named Holy Wayne. The other character who gets her own sections is Nora, the town’s most tragic figure–a young woman who lost her husband, son and daughter in the Sudden Departure. These characters’ stories intersect and diverge in sometimes surprising ways. The format that Perrotta works with here–alternating sections from the third person p.o.v.s of these five characters–allows us not only insight into their personal worlds, but advances the plot by playing with what we do and don’t know, what we do and don’t see. It isn’t a new technique, of course, but one that is used to particularly great effect in this novel.
I was fascinated by all of these people. I felt as though the trajectories Perrotta lay out for them felt true to circumstance (as outrageous as that circumstance is) and he was brave enough to follow their arcs through to dismal conclusions in some cases. I found myself wishing, at times, that Perrotta was the kind of junky writer who gives his audience what they want–man o man did the junky part of my brain want to know what really happened to everyone, want the romances to work out right, the families to be healed, everyone’s stars to realign. That said, I think there was one tiny spot where he did maybe chicken out and pull back from the conclusion one of the storylines was heading towards, but the resolution he found there was only slightly less chilling than the one I was, against all decency, rooting for. But, in general, the literary part of my brain thought Perrotta did what he needed to do in this novel by leaving the right questions unanswered and the right scenarios resolved.
As with any speculative or apocalyptic story, Perrotta did not have to stray particularly far from actual reality to find any of this characters or situations. That is not to say, though, that he did not have to imagine into a lot of impulses here and construct an alternate reality that felt believable. From the particulars of the Guilty Remnant to the evolution of Tom’s college-kid to radical-disciple to undercover-hippie journey, he built up and backed up his own terrific roster of invented mythologies.
He is also funny. Take this excerpt regarding some of the celebrity Departed:
John Mellancamp and Jennifer Lopez, Shaq and Adam Sandler, Miss Texas and Greta Van Susteren, Vladimir Putin and the Pope. There were so many different levels of fame, and they all kept getting mixed together–the nerdy guy from the Verizon ads and the retired Supreme Court Justice, the Latin American tyrant and the quarterback who’d never fulfilled his potential, the witty political consultant and that chick who’d been dissed on The Bachelor. According to the Food Network, the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit (51).
The thing about this list, besides its spot-on hilarity, is that it actually gives us a lot of information, too. This is a world that exists right along side ours–these people are famous right now. It provoked a definite unsettled feeling in my stomach to see such specificity and randomness; I don’t know if Perrotta could have nailed that feeling of It could have been anybody so quickly in his reader without this pop culture reference. We know immediately what a grand scope we’re dealing with from this list, that the frivolous and the rarefied were lost, and how everything must have changed. No Food Network stars? Jeez. Of course this list may not serve the book so well in ten years, but we’ll worry about that later.
I recommend you get this book, read it, and talk to me about it. I recommend you do not study the empty shoes (get it?) on the back cover of The Leftovers too hard, go to an Anthropology store, see the same exact super cute yellow and beige flats on the shelf and have a heart palpitation, as I did last week. In Perrotta’s world, even those with great taste in shoes could Depart.