Monday, February 20, 2012

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

The first time she'd heard about the Rapture, she was a freshman in college, taking a class called Intro to World Religions. The phenomenon the professor described seemed like a joke to her, hordes of Christians floating out of their clothes, rising up through the roofs of their houses and cars to meet Jesus in the sky, everyone else standing around with their mouths hanging open, wondering where all the good people had gone... It felt like religious kitsch, as tacky as a black velvet painting, 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.
--from the Prologue to The Leftovers

And then, without warning, millions of people simultaneously disappeared, not just from Mapleton but from the whole world. Was it the Rapture? A lot of folks thought so, though Christians disagreed since so many of the vanished "hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior." Whatever it was, the mass exodus left the remaining people with a whole new set of problems and a myriad of unhelpful ways of solving them.

In The Leftovers, Tom Perrotta - author of Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher, among others - goes way beyond the mildly comic suburban realism of his previous novels. In this comic dystopian novel (if such a genre is possible) he weaves together stories about Laurie, who joins a bizarre cult called the Guilty Remnant; her son Tom, who drops out of college to follow a guru who calls himself Holy Wayne; Aimee and Jill, whose attempts to combine high school with sex and drugs don't work out so well; Christine and Meg, sadly unhinged young women you just want to protect; Kevin, the stodgy mayor who keeps putting one foot in front of the other; and Nora - well, I'm not going to say anything about Nora, because she becomes especially interesting at the book's very end, and I don't want to be a spoiler.

I enjoy reading Perrotta because of the way he uses language. I appreciate the comic touches, continually giving hope that something good may come out of the tragic event and its aftermath. And maybe it does, depending on how you interpret the last couple of pages. Or maybe it doesn't.

I suspect that if Perrotta wrote a sequel, it would not be cheering. And that's why I'm not going to add to the praise this book has already gotten. It's a New York Times Notable Book, a Washington Post Notable Fiction Book, a USA Today "10 Books We Loved Reading in 2011," and one of NPR’s 10 Best Novels of 2011, and you might like it too.

For me, however, brilliant writing and wry observations aren't enough. I confess: I enjoy well-written genre fiction more than literary fiction (I loved Dominique Browning's delightful New York Times essay, "Learning to Love Airport Lit"). I like fiction with a plot that goes somewhere and characters who grow. I want eventual resolution or redemption or illumination - or comedy that is more than a thin veneer over massive tragedy. The Leftovers held my attention from start to finish, but in the end, it left me empty.

And perhaps that's exactly what Tom Perrotta meant it to do. It's not easy being a leftover.

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