Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Leftovers

Tom Perrotta
The Leftovers

St. Martin's Press, 2011

Three years before the events described in the novel, a mysterious phenomenon occurs that is similar to the Rapture, to use a biblical term. Millions of people in an instant just disappear from the face of the earth. Among them are not only faithful Christians, but people of all religions and of various moral behavior. Some take the disappearance for the real Rapture, meaning that those who remain on the earth are judged as unworthy of heavenly life, while others believe that the phenomenon only had common features with the predicted phenomenon from the Bible, but the real Rapture it is not.

After The Sudden Departure, as it is called by some, the government announces the state of emergency, shuts down schools and other institutions, the people mourn the missing, and those who had seen their loved ones disappear, are called The Witnesses.

Grief can last for years across the country, and gradually the United States return to normal. The consequences of a global phenomenon in a small town of Mapleton, New York, are described in the novel. In the center of the story is one family in which oddly enough no one has disappeared. The patriarch of the Garvey family, Kevin, was a successful businessman at the time of the Rapture-like phenomenon, his wife Laurie was a housewife, and two children were students - the eldest son Tom in college and daughter Jill in high school.

From chapter to chapter, we move from one family member to another. The global phenomenon has splot split the family, and every family member in their own way is trying to find his/her place in almost new world.

Tom Perrotta has used in his book sci-fi device, and, like many mainstream writers treated to a fantastic device and its properties with disrespect and disdain.

Placing in the base of the story a phenomenon of religious matter, Perrotta surprisingly spends very little time answering the proper questions of religion. Perrotta chose an interesting approach to a global phenomenon: not giving a full explanation of the departure, the author left his world and the characters in it to the freedom of interpretation. Characters had all prerequisites for a full discussion of the phenomenon, similar to that described in the Bible. Perrotta does not even take the side of the supporters of the biblical version, nor on the side of the rationalists, he generally rejects any discussion of the origin of the departure. The most important thing for Perotta was make something so erase as many people from the face of the Earth as possible, while the reason for this disappearance was of the minor importance. So, instead of the Rapture in the book it could have been any epidemic or meteor rain. Not a word was said about the research scientists, nor the statement of high rank religious people (Pope, Orthodox Patriarch etc), respectively, we do not know about the socio-economic implications of global disappearance of countless people. What impact it does on demography, economics, world politics - it seems like nothing has changed.

And even if you convince yourself that Perrotta was interested not in the phenomenon itself, but in what was after, the picture still looks fragile. After such religiocentric phenomenon we see three options for the development of the world in terms of religion. Among all the official representatives of the Catholic Church we see only one priest, highly pissed at the world and God, bringing risen to the path of revenge. The priest began to argue that God took the sinners and betrayed those who truly believed. Is this priest representative? Probably not, but we do not find others, and it is hard to say whether all priests were so bitter that have fallen to the level of gossipers and blackmailers, or just this one turned out rotten.

Two other religious paths are the religious groups, early on quite different with dissimilar structure, and by the finale, we see the corruption and lies within both these newly formed cults.
Church of Holy Wayne is a typical example of the American sects, they usually do not even need a reason for existence. They were there, and Perotta just uses the template of the structure and motives of the already existing sects. Other religious groups, The Guilty Remnant, at first seems like an original idea, with their spying and remaining silent. Perrotta does not develop the theme: the cult was created as if by itself, its structure remains opaque, it does not set any goals, and all that we see is the work of lower-level sectarian and their recruitment methods. By the final sectarian motives become clear: to gather the property and finances of sectarians, choose the most persistent, testing their strength on the ability to kill.
While staying at the dorm Laurie and Meg relate only to those down-to-earth conversations, completely ignoring the issues of religion and faith. Both women chose to stay withing the cult not as a possible way to salvation, but as an opportunity to fence from the world. You can put into question the motives of the two women as they both have not lost the loved ones during the departure. Their families remain on the Earth, and Laurie, if act by logic, should have by all means hold her family together, to support her husband and children, to consider herself lucky that an unknown cataclysm did not violate the integrity of their family.

Perrotta on the contrary is as if blaming Kevin that he hasn’t joined the Guilty Remnant, and sympathizes with and endorses the choice of Laurie.

Novels of ideas too are often elevated and distant from reality. It is a pity that Perrotta could not squeeze in «The Leftovers» any resonable ideas, focusing on daily life of the characters. With the same success, the book could have been written about 9/11: before us is a soap opera about a family where everyone is struggling with the pain and despair in his own way. I do not know whether Perrotta conceived the novel as the basis for the HBO series or rights have been sold after the book was published, but The Leftovers reads as a TV series on paper. It has quite diverse storylines to please everyone, here is enough melodrama and sex (heterosexual and lesbian), there is sufficient amount of details so that the novel had meat on the bones. The problem lies in the fact that Perrotta as if from the very beginning knows how it ends, and simply writes scenes, separate episodes for the show, and he does so without a flame in the heart. Worn style completely denies the story of some colours. Dialog is like a mix between the utterance of banal wisdoms and everyday chitchat. Simply put, the novel lacks some spark, not in the least a stylistic one. For the realist Perrotta is too boring and pat, as a writer with the ideas he lacks his own ideas.

The Leftovers justifies its title: the tastiest pieces have already been eaten, what’s left is the leftovers.

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