inSide Books: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
It’s easy to be skeptical at first. Tom Perrotta, dedicated social realist, entering the realm of high concept? And not just any high concept, but a novel about The Rapture? It all feels a little been there done that and not just by The Left Behinders and their dubious ilk. Hell, Superman faced a similar crisis about a half decade ago.
I was skeptical for my own reasons. I’ve never been entirely on the Tom Perrotta train.
Little Children was a sharply observed and written work of social commentary, but carried a distinct whiff of condescension to it. The palatable feeling that Perrotta was writing from above his characters, and though he understood them, did not like them much. This is perhaps not an unforgivable sin for some readers, but more problematic for me was the way the book ended up employing what is perhaps the cardinal sin of modern literary fiction: petering out. Anything that smells of narrative momentum was brutally extinguished in the third act. Perrotta’s other works share similar problems to varying degrees.
So color me surprised when I say that I find The Leftovers to be something of a triumph and probably the best thing that Perrotta has written. For once, the novel ends rather than merely stopping. The degree of removal from reality that Perrotta’s scenario affords seems to be just what he needed to give his characters some forgiveness as well as understanding.
Which is not to say he has gone soft.
The story follows a family that falls apart in the wake of a mass disappearance of millions of people. The question of whether or not it is the literal Rapture remains unanswered and to a certain extent is simply not germane. At its core, “The Sudden Departure,” as the residents of Perrotta’s world refer to the event, is simply something that irrevocably interrupts normal life.
It is his smartest stroke to suggest that despite the cataclysm, in some ways nothing much has changed at all. The situation his lead character finds himself in—his wife having left him for reasons unknown, his college-aged son estranged, his daughter uncommunicative and going distressingly goth—would fit any of the ennui-soaked protagonists of his previous novels, another in the long line of bewildered, disappointed ex-jocks for whom Perrotta has always saved his deepest sympathies.
Which is not to say that he has not done the work. Often when a literary novelist borrows genre-like conceits there’s a certain laziness to the writing, as though the author thinks they’re slumming and thus doesn’t have to put in the work of creating a believable environment. There is no such laxness to be found here. One must give credit to the completeness with which Perrotta has imagined his world—everything from the various competing factions that rise in its wake, cults and counter cults, to which celebrities disappeared. It is as if (and I mean this as a compliment) he started the novel as a 500-page notebook of world-building exercises, and almost grudgingly came up with a novel to justify it. The work has the richness and depth of someone who has fully lived in the world he has created.
Perrotta’s prose is sharp as ever. His preternatural ability to dissect the upper class suburban mindset with scalpel-like precision, always the most notable strength of his writing, remains intact. As when a character thinks of The Rapture as “the kind of fantasy that appealed to people who ate too much fried food, spanked their kids, and had no problem with the theory that their loving God invented AIDS to punish the gays.” As though the three traits are roughly equivalent.
However one feels about his work, the fact remains that Perrotta has become arguably the most popular literary novelist of his generation (second only to Franzen) at least in part because he is a damn good writer who is able to drop in metaphors as unobtrusive as they are evocative as when he describes “the invisible haze of stale grief and chronic bewilderment thickening in the air” at a memorial service for the departed.
Well-written, generous, but with a startling courage of conviction, The Leftovers is simply a great work, and an early contender for best book of the year. It is a deceptively moving and powerful portrait of ordinary people grappling with the inexplicable.
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Elsewhere inReads: Our tribute to a guy who knows a little something about the end of the world.