The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
The Leftovers was an unknown book to me until a friend mentioned over coffee one evening this confusing book that had been loaned to him by one of his friends. He mentioned it a couple of times over the next few weeks, and consistently referenced that, while it was an easy read, he just couldn’t figure out what it was that the author was up to. Because of my background, though, he had sought his friend’s permission to loan the book to me in turn when he finished, because he was interested in my opinion.
The premise of the Leftovers is this: a Rapture-like event called the Great Departure has occurred, and the story picks up with those who have been (pardon the cliche) left behind. Except this event didn’t mesh with the Rapture of Christian theology, because people of all faiths are missing, just as many Christians are left behind. Obviously, the world toys with falling apart, and many individuals do just that. Perrotta centers his story on the citizens of one mid-western U.S. town, Mapleton, and how they survive and move forward.
Many religious cults begin to manifest in this future world that Perrotta spins, and all of them seem to emerge from a similar motivation: they are all attempting to correct whatever it was that had been missed in the first place. There’s the Guilty Remnant, a fascinating idea for a group of characters, consisting of white-clad watchers that smoke cigarettes and mutely stare at you to remind you that you shouldn’t be moving on with life or forgetting what they feel God has done. There’s the more humorous Holy Wayne, who marries a few teenage girls and manages to get one pregnant with what he predicts will be the miracle child that will save the world. And, there’s the more down to earth pastor whom, unbelieving that he has devoted his whole life to God and yet been deserted, begins to self-publish a newsletter exposing all the sins of the people who vanished, as though to find an outlet for his bitterness.
The Leftovers isn’t a heavy read at all, but each evening I picked it up was a struggle. I hefted the book from the coffee table and generally grumbled about how unfair life was and why I should have my head examined for pushing through this thing. In fact, I have difficulty remembering the last time I struggled so much to simply finish a book. This is in contrast, however, to the last twenty pages, which I suddenly found nearly impossible to put down. So, to say that the pacing felt a bit odd to me would be an understatement.
One of the reviews on the book jacket describes Perrotta as the “Steinbeck of Suburbia,” and I’ll draw this comparison to Steinbeck’s work immediately: this novel is supremely depressing (and this coming from someone who enjoys dystopian concepts). What Perrotta does masterfully is weave thoroughly developed characters who are working, some successfully and some not, through the grief process. I found myself heartbroken for some of them, and the touching descriptions of their most intimate struggles and attempts to cope were perhaps what made the book difficult to take in longer sittings.
The friend who loaned this book to me? He told me that his friend had told him that, for him, the entire novel came down to the last sentence. He urged me to resist the urge to look forward, and to wait for it to arrive. So I did. My friend also told me that, if that last sentence is really what the novel is working toward, then it didn’t have much. I’ll just say that it fell hopelessly flat.
And that, ultimately, is my description of much the book: hopelessly flat. That has a great deal to do with the fact that the reader finishes with absolutely no clue what Perrotta is trying to accomplish here. I’ve heard others say that he doesn’t have an axe to grind, but I’m not so convinced. I would have walked away from the book much more fulfilled had I simply been able to get some glimpse of what axe it was, but Perrotta, perhaps intentionally, leaves it obscured. What seems most likely to me is a treatment of the shortfalls of organized religion, but even this reading runs into difficulties soon enough. I finished this book emotionally wrung out, but more bemused than I have been by a work of literary fiction in some time.
Perhaps I’m looking too deeply, and Perrotta is simply painting a picture of working through the grief of sudden and enormous loss, and how some always find ways to hope and move forward, while some become twisted and forever fractured, all againt an imaginative premise as a backdrop. If this is the case, then he certainly writes his characters beautifully, but to a shallow end. If this is what Perrotta wanted to accomplish, then he certainly did so, but I found it wanting. I have difficulty recommending this book to anyone.