The Leftovers: In Which Humans Act Like Humans, and I Cannot Stress How Exceptional This Is

Hi friends! You’ll all be relieved to know that I’m alive and haven’t been Raptured! I came back to do a review of the Left Behind movie and realized I had a nearly-complete write up of The Leftovers (the novel) still in my drafts from August.  So I finished it up! A bit more serious than my usual tone, but I felt that Perrotta’s achievement deserved a little more respect than the usual if-we-throw-Jesus-in-it-no-one-will-notice-how-terrible-it-is excuse for a Rapture story.

Enjoy!

The best thing about Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers is that, compared to other Rapture books, absolutely nothing happens.

That may sound like an insult, but it’s not.

Generally in Post-Rapture stories, you see, the world becomes an extremely busy place. God wastes no time in plaguing our planet with earthquakes, comets, flaming hail, and a series of generally supernatural disasters. Satan and Antichrist are hard at work on nefarious plots to … do … well, their motivation isn’t always clear, but it’s something nefarious. And plotty.

Meanwhile, protagonists find themselves caught up in a sudden epic battle, requiring lots of jet setting across the globe, hobnobbing with world leaders, uncovering the Antichrist’s nefarious plots, covering up the Antichrist’s nefarious plots, all the while dodging both Satan’s minions and God’s disasters.

(I’m basing this off of Left Behind, of course, but it holds true for most of the other stories.)

Perhaps the key element of post-Rapture stories, however, is the inevitable End. Time is ticking between now and the apocalypse. The readers know this, the characters know this, God knows this. Everyone is trying to squeeze in as many world-shattering events as possible into a limited number of years.

So what do you do in a Post Rapture world where nothing divine happens? No trials, no tribulation, no Antichrist, no epic battle, no End? Just a Rapture, and then a life that continues on as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever occurred? How do you make sense of such a thing?

Enter The Leftovers.

Three years after the Rapture—when, in another book, world-weary protagonists would be dreading the halfway point of a war-torn Tribulation—Perrotta’s characters have finally made their way to something like normalcy. They’re beginning to trust that the world is not ending. Life, to everyone’s surprise, simply goes on. And the characters move on too, even if they don’t necessarily know where they are moving to.

Compared to other Rapture stories with their constant barrage of explosions, prophecies, and demons, a book about characters tentatively creeping back into their own lives, daring to move forward in a world that has shaken them to their cores, almost sounds anticlimactic.

It’s not anticlimactic at all.

In fact, in some ways the non-apocalypse of The Leftovers is even more devastating than the usual End Times. In Perrotta’s book, millions of people around the globe disappear, simultaneously and without a trace. However, this time there is no explicit divine intervention, no pattern, no purpose. The nature of reality has changed, but nobody understands why.

The plot unfolds not through a series of increasingly awful global traumas, but through small-scale interactions of five family members seeking to make sense of things. Faced with a lack of answers, each copes in their own way. Sweet, studious Jen becomes rebellious. Kevin runs for mayor. Nora seeks solace in a romance she did not expect.

Religion is present, as two characters seek answers by joining cults, but humanity, not religion, is the central theme of this story. The cult members, and even the cult leaders, are treated sympathetically, with respect for the characters who made these decisions. You may not agree with Laurie’s final act as a member of the Silent Remnant, but you find yourself empathizing none the less.

Within this seemingly uneventful Post-Rapture world, then, Perrotta has done something impressive. By narrowing the plot to a single traumatic event, he cleared space for us to look at people as they respond to that event.

We’ve seen plenty of Rapture stories who use the fulfillment of one apocalyptic prophecy after another to try to distract from the fact that the characters are awful and nothing makes sense. Without the constant apocalyptic distractions, we are left with an in depth and beautifully written book about the effect of one supernatural event on five poignantly human protagonists.

Was it an ambitious effort, leaving it up to these five flawed small town humans to carry such an earth-shattering story? Abolsutely. But Perrotta pulled it off wonderfully.

Read some other reviews written by real reviewers:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/tom-perrotta/leftovers2/

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/28/books/review/the-leftovers-by-tom-perrotta-book-review.html?_r=0

http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/tom-perrottas-subtle-apocalypse

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