The Leftovers: Whose in your group?

This past Sunday, Stephen King had a superb book review of The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.

The plot of the novel is that rapture occurred (not specific version), in which people were raptured away leaving behind the leftovers to mull: why they were not chosen? But the rapture did not conform to what believers thought. Naturally, each group assumed that their own group with its narcissism of small differences for inclusion would be saved, but instead they found that rapture ignored religious and denominational lines as well as ignoring profession, sexual orientation or even belief. So now they are hyper-charged for messianic end time and create all sorts of cults and rationalizations for their being the leftovers.

Yet, the novel focuses with exacting detail on their continued concern with their suburban lives: take out pizza, Blackberries, and investments. One reviewer notes: “This, of course, is what Mr. Perrotta does so well: depict with both sympathy and humor the sense of sadness, regret and yearning that ordinary people (even in ordinary times) feel as they drift into adulthood and find that connections — between husbands and wives, parents and children — are way more fragile or elusive than they’d once thought.”

From a promotional blurb:

Author Tom Perrotta is a master at exposing the quiet desperation behind America’s suburban sheen. In The Leftovers he explores what would happen if The Rapture actually took place and millions of people just disappeared from the earth. How would normal people respond? Perrotta’s characters show a variety of coping techniques, including indifference, avoidance, depression, freaking out, and the joining of cults. Despite the exceptional circumstances, it’s really not unlike how people respond to more minor incidents in their lives (excepting cults). The result is a novel that’s a slow burn yet strangely compelling, one that leaves the reader pondering the story long after it’s over. In vivid and occasionally satiric prose, he takes a bizarre and abnormal event–the Rapture–and imagines how normal people would deal with being left behind. –Chris Schluep

What I did not know was that the gothic author Stephen King as a book reviewer is capable of writing intellectual history and social context with a paucity of words. He was a model of showing me, not telling me. King compares our current era to the late 1950’s, 58-64 era of the Twilight Zone. Those years were a time of conformity and convention as well as an acute fear of the Communists, the Atomic bomb, and things unAmerican. The Twilight Zone showed how this fear and conformity lead to disaster and to our destroying ourselves with our own fear. The show was a social commentary on themes such as racism, war, xenophobia, and social conventionality. The fears were the problem not the “other” itself. The show captured the moment when things started to unravel away from the fear to openness by deflecting the issues as parable and fable.

King shows us that the Perrotta captures the post 9/11 conformity, with a sectarian religion as the glue holding society together with visions of an ungenerous God offering limited lifeboat redemption. In King’s take, what happens when those currently keeping the boundaries discover that they do not correspond to God’s plan? Picture a Jewish novel about the dawn of the messianic era where few of the current assumptions hold true, offering a redemption by those outside the sectarian designation. Imagine if Sarah Silverman, Rahm Emmanuel, the cast of the original Law And Order, the Skverer Rebbe, Mahamud Abbas, your shul gabbai, and the teens who only keep half-shabbos were those chosen. How would those not chosen react? Justify their not being chosen? How would they go about their life?

FYI- King is about to release an alternate history novel about 58-63, reflecting our own era. And Perrota’s book is being adapted for TV by HBO.

Perrotta has delivered a troubling disquisition on how ordinary people react to extraordinary and inexplicable events, the power of family to hurt and to heal, and the unobtrusive ease with which faith can slide into fanaticism. “The Leftovers” is, simply put, the best “Twilight Zone” episode you never saw — not “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” but “The Monsters Are Us in Mapleton.” That they are quiet monsters only makes them more eerie.

The rapture’s failure to conform to biblical prophecy has driven some people plumb over the edge. The Rev. Matt Jamison becomes chief among the rapture deniers of the remaining Mapleton population: “He wept frequently and kept up a running monologue about . . . how unfair it was that he’d missed the cut.” The minister’s response to this unfairness is to insist this wasn’t the real rapture, and to prove it with a news¬letter full of scurrilous tittle-¬tattle about the disappeared.

Perrotta suggests that in times of real trouble, extremism trumps logic and dialogue becomes meaningless. Read as a metaphor for the social and political splintering of American society after 9/11, it’s a chillingly accurate diagnosis.
There is Perrotta’s beautifully modulated narration to admire, too. His lines have a calm and unshowy clarity that makes the occasional breakout even more striking, as when Laurie smells a freshly unboxed takeout pizza, the aroma “as full of memories as an old song on the car radio.” Or when a suburban housewife recalls her husband’s job-¬related BlackBerry obsession, his mind “so absorbed in his work that he was rarely more than half there, a hologram of himself.” Lines like that offer their own form of rapture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s