Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

The unsettling premise of this novel is that one day millions of people suddenly, inexplicably disappear. There is no logic as to who they are or why they vanish—some good people remain on earth, some bad people disappear. Is this the fabled Rapture? The novel doesn’t spend much time wondering. Nor does it give much satisfaction on the moment of disappearance—all the accounts are second-hand--apparently people simply vanished, dematerialized, without fanfare. Instead the novel focuses on the survivors, those left behind, how they cope with the loss of loved ones, with the uncertainty left in the world and in personal lives.

The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta, St. Martin’s Press, 2011) is like Ordinary People in ways. It melodramatically surveys various individuals affected by the event and centers on the family of Greg, which is torn apart even though no member of the family disappeared. The mother Laurie joins a cult whose members never speak and who wear white clothing. The son Tom drops out of college and disappears for long periods of time. He joins a cult called the Healing Hug, which he discovers is really just a cover beneath which the organizer sleeps with young girls. Greg is elected mayor. Daughter Jill shaves off her hair and suffers teen angst. It’s all just a blasé sort of soap opera.

So really this novel is about loss. There’s no theological rambling. This is not a religious novel.

What exactly is it? Its real interest ought to lie in what happened to the departed. Where did they go? Are they ingredients in some alien cookbook? Are they in heaven or hell? The novel offers little satisfaction on these questions or anything else.