Saturday, September 24, 2011

After the revolution, the soap opera continues (Books - The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta)

And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor...this was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend's daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was in the house. God's intrusion into her life couldn't have been any clearer if He'd addressed her from a burning azalea....

"Something tragic occurred," the experts repeated over and over. "It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture."

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the people who'd disappeared on October 14th - Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever they heck they were - hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.
Millions of people disappear without any explanation, but if you've been waiting for the rapture, they're the wrong people. What does life become for the Billions left behind, asks Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers. The novel chronicles the lives of the citizens of Mapleton, one small American town, living in the wake of an event which makes no sense. Is this a life with no meaning at all? Or is it, rather, one with the ultimate meaning? The meaning you provide with your will, your intellect, your heart (or for that matter, your entrepreneurial spirit) from this point forward.

This world becomes peppered with monuments and movements. Healers who hug. A cult in which members take a vow of silence and smoke to show their faith. But amidst all the questions of meaning, life goes on, as it always does. Adolescents still go to high school, are still popular or unpopular. People fall in love, and out, they get diagnosed with illness, they learn to drive. Perrotta gets this exactly right and creates, for this reader, particularly in reading this two weeks ago, a potent post-9/11 metaphor. Some of its potency comes from the satiric tone of the book. Perrotta has not written a laugh-riot. He doesn't mock recent events, but he creates an absurd happening in a rational world which the inhabitants of that world take seriously, and then takes it to its absurd ends. This is the real strength of The Leftovers. Its description of the experience of loss is dead on.

As the holiday season begins, members of the cult Guilty Remnant, watch a presentation "Christmas" is meaningless. "Christmas" belongs to the old world." Claim the slides. Yes, when you lose a central source of meaning in your life - whether that's a loved one, all your possessions, or some essential fact you held on to that helped made life meaningful - everything must be re-defined. Perrotta includes parallels in the story line to send home the point. A woman discovers that her husband had been having an affair, a re-organizing loss on a domestic level, and yet a very similar one. This woman counted on her husband's faith (if not his love) as a fact. Something that she was sure she had. And yet, for months while she continued to feel certain, it was not there. If those things of which you feel you can be certain aren't there - what is?

Tom Perrotta's use of language sometimes, for my taste, was too rooted in the relaxed diction not of easy-to-read writing, but of speech. It's a little TV-efied. I tend not to enjoy this quality in writing, but the flip-side of this style is that it makes reading effortless. In this case, Perrotta writes so that we know his characters quickly and care for them. He is an astute cultural observer, a crack psychologist, a useful provocateur, and he's very entertaining. After the revolution, the soap opera continues, to find out what happens read The Leftovers.

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