Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: "The Leftovers" by Tom Perrotta

I wanted to read this book before the HBO series based on Tom Perrotta’s dystopian novel premiered, and I finished a mere two hours shy of the deadline. (If you’re watching the show, you can check out my reviews of each episode here: Okay, back to the book. I was intrigued by this idea of 2% of the world’s population vanishing with no explanation. What happens to those who are left behind? What happens to societal structure and the role of religion beneath the weight of the unknown?

The story picks up three years after the "Sudden Departure" of 2% of the world's population. In the story we get to travel into different character perspectives to gain a wider scope of the impact of the Sudden Departure. Most of the characters we follow are from the Garvey family. Kevin Garvey is the Mayor of Mapleton, which serves as a microcosm for what is occurring on a world wide scale. Kevin is struggling with raising his teenage daughter Jill in the aftermath of all that has happened. Jill is trying to make sense of a world with an uncertain future, as is much of the youth in the story. All of the previous societal expectations seem absurd when you don’t know if tomorrow is guaranteed. Jill’s perspective provides a glimpse into her broken world filled with hedonism and a slow growing discovery that not even extreme explorations of pain and pleasure can fill the void.

Kevin’s son, Tom, was in college when the Sudden Departure occurred. Tom’s journey is intriguing as we follow him through the motions of belonging to a cult. Tom is a follower of a man referred to as “Holy Wayne” who offers a physical embrace to unburden those left behind of their grief and fear. Tom wrestles with his belief in Holy Wayne as he watches the fame and fortune distort the original mission that compelled Tom to leave school and move across the country. Tom is a character desperately seeking a sense of belonging in a world that could let him loose at any moment.

And then there is Laurie Garvey, a member of another cult called the Guilty Remnant (GR). Laurie has left her husband and her teenage daughter to live in a commune among people who believe that they are experiencing the wrath of God’s judgment. While the rest of the world moves on to try to piece together some semblance of normality, the GR is there to disrupt any “business as usual” behavior. The GR claim to be the living reminders of the departed and their vow of silence speaks as loud as their all white wardrobe and chain smoking. The point they are trying to make is that none of it matters: the meaningless chatter and obsession with health, because God will be back to take others. Why Laurie left her family remains an odd mystery, and I would assume a purposeful one. I don’t want to say that Perrotta did a poor job in flushing out the complexities of motherhood, because in this world he has created – people are desperate for any social alignment with what they feel internally.

The plethora of cults and groups of different beliefs offering those struggling with their feelings of abandonment and grief a chance to feel connected to something much bigger than themselves makes sense. Isn't this the desire innate in the human condition – the need to belong to a community?

I thought the religious elements of the story were deftly handled and this is nothing like the Left Behind series which deals specifically with the biblical rapture. There are some characters and cults that believe that the rapture happened, and then there is Reverend Matt Jamison who can’t believe that he wouldn't be among those chosen as he has spent his life a true believer. So he is enveloped by an obsessive urge to unveil the faults of all those who were taken to prove that the departure didn't occur, that those departed were not pure people. His character is another example of the desperate attempt to create meaning in the face of the unknown.  

There is one character in the story that drove me kind of crazy by the end. Nora Durst. Nora’s husband and two children were among those who disappeared. She gets a sort of grievous recognition in Mapleton as the most injured and henceforth the most fragile survivor. By the end of the story her perspective annoyed me and I don’t really know why except that I couldn't identify with some of her obsessive tendencies. Let’s just say – she exercises a lot, and beyond that and reliving episodes of Spongebob that she watched with her kids, there’s not a lot of substance to her. Kevin Garvey also became grating in the end as he seemed too passive in his own life. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's HBO adaptation and expansion of his character is much more compelling. There were some supporting characters I found intriguing and would have like to have learned more about them, but I understand the limitations of the narrative and the overall effect of the story and the way it ended.

The Leftovers is a story that doesn't wrap things up with a bow, so if you like happy endings and firm resolutions, this may not be your particular brand of read. If anything, three years after the Sudden Departure we see the unraveling of all of the initial coping mechanisms explored by individuals and society. The way the narrative unfolded to reveal more information about the characters and especially about the Guilty Remnant was beautifully executed by Perrotta. I’m interested in reading more of his work, especially Little Children. He’s not a writer who dawdles, his word choice is filled with purpose and the craft involved in the overall structure of the story is really well developed. I’d say the book is worth a read if you are interested in the psychological and societal impacts of sudden grief and global acknowledgment of a mysterious loss. 

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