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Grief Writ Large: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

Book #22 for 2011: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

In his New York Times review of The Leftovers, Stephen King called it “the best ‘Twilight Zone’ episode you never saw.” But I think King missed the mark there. The Leftovers isn’t really a Twilight Zone episode at all.

You’d think it would be from the premise, which is that the Rapture or something very much like it has occurred. A certain portion of humanity has simply vanished, flickered out of existence while performing mundane activities like eating meals, throwing tantrums and flying jet airliners. But the Rapture isn’t really what the book is about. Perrotta dismisses any notion that this is a melodramatic fantasy at the very beginning of the novel, where he deals with the Rapture itself in a few paragraphs of exposition and lobs off a subtly derisive comment in the direction of Left Behind, that series of crossover religious books that dominated secular bestseller lists several years ago, examining the Rapture and its aftermath in multi-volume detail. (I tried to read the first one not long after it came out and gave up after two or three pages, choking on the awful prose.)

What The Leftovers is about is how human beings react to loss, how they grieve, how they adapt to the hole left behind by a departed friend, loved one, coworker or even despised enemy. As in our own Rapture-less world, they cope in a number of ways, often by denying themselves any hope of happiness in a world that has changed seemingly beyond repair and even attempting to impose their own unhappiness on the world at large. The Leftovers could easily have been a study of how a family reacts to death (and, indeed, most of the book is about how a single family and their close friends and relatives deal with the changes in their world). But Perrotta seems more interested in grief and coping with loss writ large. His post-Rapture world is a lot like our own, with people spending much of their time playing hurt and not necessarily doing a good job of it, but there’s even more of this going on than usual

The Leftovers reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which I wrote about last year. Like Rachman, Perrotta has a gift for writing about flawed human beings who turn out rather unexpectedly to be good people, ones that the reader genuinely likes, though it takes much longer to warm to Perrotta’s characters than it did to Rachman’s. (Rachman’s gift is that he can present a complete and satisfactory character arc in the space of a single chapter.) And, as in Rachman’s book, I was surprised to find myself deeply moved in the end. (I think it’s always better when sentimental emotions sneak up on you in a book. A book that dwells on them quickly becomes mawkish.)

The Leftovers is a very low-key, mildly comic novel, following the lives of well-drawn characters through a series of minor but telling incidents. If the book has a message (a term I’m not terribly comfortable with) it’s that the hardest thing to do in the wake of tragic loss is to give yourself permission to be happy again, but it’s also the most important thing you can do. Perrotta’s characters don’t always succeed at this, but you love them when they finally make the attempt.

About Christopher Lampton

Chris Lampton, a cofounder of the e-book design firm Illuminated Pages (see link in my Blogroll), is a writer, an editor, an occasional computer programmer, a voracious reader, and a fanatic video game player. In the course of his distinguished if haphazard career he has written more than 90 books, including the 1993 computer book bestseller Flights of Fantasy (Waite Group Press). He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend Amy and our cat Lola, and now spends much of his available time editing and rewriting novels for self-published authors.

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