Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta

Have you ever been driving down the road and come upon a car with the bumper sticker that reads, "In case of rapture this car will be unmanned"?  For a while they were real popular here in southern Chicagoland, and every time I saw one I thought the same thing, How arrogant! Granted, as an atheist I don't really believe in the Rapture or heaven, but from what I know about the teachings of Jesus somehow I find it hard to believe that he would be in favor of his followers assuming that just by believing in him they get a free pass to heaven when the Apocalypse happens.  Wasn't he all about good works and loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek and all that?  What would happen if suddenly millions of people worldwide disappeared in a Rapture-like event but the supposedly devout faithful weren't necessarily among them?

This event and its aftermath are the backdrop for Tom Perrotta's latest book, The Leftovers.  One October morning millions of people all over the world, of all races, cultures, and religions, simply disappeared.  Vanished without a trace.  One minute you are sitting next to your best friend on the couch, the next instant-gone.  Some people lost their whole family in the blink of an eye, other families stayed intact but lost friends and colleagues.  There appeared to be no rhyme or reason to the disappearances, which led those trying to recover from the loss to find different ways to cope.  The novel follows one family and their attempts to make sense of what seems like a senseless event.  Kevin and Laurie and their children Jill and Tom  were living the American dream.  Kevin was a successful businessman, Laurie a busy stay-at-home mom.  Jill and Tom were both honors students, and Tom has just left for Syracuse University when the Sudden Departure, as the world soon called it, occurred.  Three years later, Laurie is a member of a cult called the Guilty Remnant, Jill has shaved her head and nearly failed out of school, and Tom has disappeared into the organization of a faith "healer" who gained fame by hugging away the pain of those left behind.  Kevin tries desperately to keep some semblance of normalcy going while trying to give everyone he loves time to recover from what happened to them all.

The narrative structure of this novel is of the every-chapter-from-a-different-POV variety, which I know bothers some people, but it works in this book because it allows Perotta to examine the various personal emotional reactions of the people affected by the Sudden Departure of their friends and family.  Aside from the family listed above, we also see the point of view of a woman named Nora, who lost her entire family-husband and two kids-in the time it took for her to go to the kitchen for a rag to wipe up a spill.  The depth of her grief feels boundless-to her and to the reader.  Her unsuccessful attempts to move on from the event illustrate just how difficult it can be to move forward when everything you thought you knew is taken away.

Perrotta does an admirable job imagining how different types of people would react to such an impossible-seeming occurrence.  The loss, and ultimately the not knowing, drive people to extremes.  Some turn to religious cults who claim to understand "god's" plan and to provide answers that people seek.  Some frenetically try to return to normal, diving into the same mindless consumerism that existed prior to the Departure.  Some turn to drugs or alcohol or sex as a way to dull their pain.  But the book does not dwell only on the sadness and loss-to me the book's message speaks to the human ability to survive, to the unique capacity of human beings to adapt to new circumstances, to the idea that even in a world where the old rules have been turned on their head, people can and will begin to create order from the chaos.

4 comments:

  1. This sounds really good! I read a few Perrotta books last year and have been waiting for this to come out in paperback, and now I kind of can't wait to read it!

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  2. I reviewed this book several months ago, and I still remember how the last chapter had my mind spinning. Perrotta is, I think, unmatched in his ability to nail the banalities and human drama of suburbia.

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  3. This book is on my wishlist as I think it must be really good. I didn't realise it was told by different POVs. I usually don't like it if there are too many different POVs. Still, the story really appeals to me.

    BTW Totally agree with the first paragraph of your post!

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  4. @Judith-Basically there are five points of view-the four members of the central family and the woman who lost her husband and kids. I did not find it hard to follow, as each chapter told a pretty complete series of events from start to finish.

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