Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

I gotta admit, I was kind of disappointed by this one.

A "Rapture-like event" has happened about three months before the opening of the novel, and millions of people around the world have simply disappeared. It's not generally accepted that this is The Rapture, since many of the taken weren't even Christian, or weren't especially good people even.

But they are gone now, and this is about the people who are left.

There is a short introduction that takes place three months after the event, while people are generally still stunned by their losses and trying to figure out What It All Means in a cosmic sense. Chapter One opens three years after that, after the failure of the world to be destroyed in Biblical fashion. Now those left behind simply have to carry on, however they can.

The plot is slight. The book focuses on the Garvey family, who hasn't actually lost anybody. A neighboring family lost their teen-aged daughter and the mother became unhinged by grief. She joined a cult, one of many that sprung up in the aftermath. Laurie Garvey drove her friend to the compound, then joined the cult herself a year later, leaving her husband Kevin, and two teens, Tom and Jill, to find their own way.

In some ways, the title and the Rapture-like event are really misleading. The book doesn't really grapple with religion at all, which you would think would be the case. I mean, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are going to have to figure out what your religion means. If people were literally taken up into heaven, but they weren't (for the most part) even Christian--what does that do you your understanding of the universe?  Then, when the promised final days apocalypse doesn't happen, how do you reshape your way of life?

The Garveys are not even a little bit religious, and so their "loss" isn't the kind of immediately visceral kind that others in the book experienced. Laurie's friend's daughter disappeared. Laurie lost her own bearings, but we don't even see that, because she leaves her family and joins the cult in the time that doesn't get covered by the narrative.

So the Garveys' stories really aren't tied to this whole Revelation thing either. Which makes their story feel rather banal--Laurie might as well have left for another man, discovered she was gay, run off to find herself, or some other more quotidian type of family disruption. Merely a divorce would have been enough to cause Tom to lose his bearings in college. Jill fell in with a disruptive friend, and her school work suffered. Nothing apocalyptic necessary there either.

It feels like a bait and switch--that the whole Rapture thing is just a device to get to some stories about grief, stories that could have been told perfectly well without the Rapture being invoked at all. Dramatically, I don't think the book actually benefited from this high concept conceit.

Kevin finds himself lonely in the house of his marriage, with wife and older son gone. His teen aged daughter isn't around much, and the friend she invites to stay with them turns into a (brief) sexual temptation that he recognizes as inappropriate. Tom leaves college to follow a charismatic religious figure who turns out to be a serial pederast. His story about shepherding a pregnant "spiritual wife" of the disgraced figure is a blatantly obvious working of the Nativity, but with little or no point to it. Tom is already disenchanted with the leader by the time he gets the job, he's not suffering any spiritual crisis, and the girl is lovely but not really a fully realized character. She's got no real spiritual journey herself, and it's no real loss when she runs off and leaves the baby behind.

Kevin tries to have a relationship with a woman whose whole family disappeared in the rapture, but it doesn't work out. Post-divorce dating stories look a lot like this generally. Jill drinks and sleeps around in adolescent acting out ways, then gives it up as unfulfilling. Honestly--this is the kind of stuff that women write about all the time, and they don't get the kind of build up this book got.

The only plot that skirts religion is Laurie's, but her story is just incomprehensible. Perrotta doesn't really give us any insight as to why this particular woman would join a cult, especially one as fanatical as the Guilty Remnant. The members live together in overcrowded conditions, never speak, smoke constantly, and follow people around town to, I'm not sure, "shame" them for going about their normal lives? It's not clear what the belief system is for this group, or why an upper middle class middle aged woman would leave her family and join them.

The GR offer a sort of plot, in that one of them has been murdered, "execution style." Several months later, a second one is also found dead. There is apparently almost no crime in this particular town, so it's kind of sensational. It turns out that the GR hierarchy (of which there doesn't seem to be much--we don't ever learn who they are or how this gets decided) has decided to order these murders to be committed in the hopes of scaring the general population? Not sure what the end game is here, or how well this plan has been thought out. If GR cult members are getting murdered, why would anybody want to join this cult?

Of course, it's well written, of course there are touches and scenes that are well crafted and even touching. But the same can be said of books by Elizabeth Berg, or Anne Tyler, or any number of other writers. This book sells itself with a Big Idea, then buries the story in favor of a fairly ordinary family drama. I would probably have liked it better if it had been brave enough to understand that was all it was.