The premise: One day, a good portion of the world’s population just disappears. Call it the Rapture, the Sudden Departure, or whatever you want. One moment they are there, the next, they’re gone, and the rest of the world is left behind to deal with the aftermath. How do people deal with this? How do they make sense of this new world? How do they handle their grief and confusion?
This is my third book by Tom Perrotta, after Little Children and The Abstinence Teacher. He has quickly become one of my favorite modern authors. While The Leftovers has a more supernatural or dystopian sort of premise, the rest of the book follows the same suburban exploration that exists in Perotta’s other fiction. This isn’t a story about the Rapture. It’s a story about how people deal with sudden, inexplicable loss and great upheavals in their world.
Recently I posted a review of Waiting for Godot. One of the things I talked about in there was the idea that people seem compelled to make meaning out of the inexplicable. That is something that is strongly explored in The Leftovers as well. Whether the inexplicable is a sudden plague that kills without a known cause or the sudden disappearance of a collection of individuals, people as a whole need to create new sense and order of their changed world. Whole religions and lifestyles and philosophies are born of this need to create sense and order.
Perrotta explores that. There are groups of people in The Leftovers who take vows of silence and refuse to forget the past. There are groups who turn to cult-like, polygamous religions that glorify what essentially amounts to pedophilia. There are groups who use self-flagellation, groups who seek out physical pleasures, groups who try to keep the world going exactly as it was before. And more. Everyone out trying to re-order their world into something that makes sense again.
The book, to me, turned out to be a double exploration. It wasn’t just about how people cope, but also about how extremist groups, no matter what their philosophy, can damage people even as they attempt to heal them. It’s about how good intentions can eventually twist and warp into something evil, and how people will believe this evil is necessary for a greater good. It’s about how power and popularity can corrupt, both individuals and groups. It’s about the transformation of philosophy into dogma, faith into religion, guideline into law.
Perrotta, of course, does this all brilliantly, but I’ve come to expect no less from him. Little Children remains my favorite of his novels, but The Leftovers has definitely earned a place on my shelf.