Another book for the Slow Paced Genre Realism category

The Leftovers!

I forgot an essential book for the “slow-paced genre realism” category I recently made up: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I discovered the novel after watching the first episode of the excellent TV series. (The beginning of The Leftovers pilot, by the way, contains what may be the best three minutes in television I’ve seen. Please watch if it you haven’t! Overall The Leftovers an amazing job of depicting the complexity of parents and parenthood and this three minute intro is no exception).

The premise of The Leftovers: 2% of the world population has disappeared (about 140 million people). Though we get a sense of the chaos that happened immediately after “the departure” as it’s called (and that chaos certainly has apocalyptic tones), what is brilliant about both the book and the TV series is that the story really begins 3 years after the departure, when things have kind of returned enough to normal to resemble literary realistic fiction. The world still works. People have jobs. The infrastructure is functional. Yet everyone is affected–haunted?–by the disappearances and are dealing with their grief in their own way. Nobody understands why it happened: was it the Rapture? If so, why were non-Christians taken along with Christians? And why were bad people taken as well as good people? What does it say about someone if they were left behind? And where did the people who are gone go? Did they go to a better place? A worse place? Did they just disappear? 

Those questions are never answered, by the way, which I think is great. The answers might be the preoccupation of a different version of the novel, one more formulaically genre-ish, but this book’s concern is the way people deal with their grief, and how people move on, or don’t.

The Leftovers strikes me as “post-apocalypse light.” In most post-apocalyptic fiction that I’ve read, enough of the world’s population disappears to disrupt normal day-to-day functioning. The planet becomes a scary wasteland, and the story concerns itself with how people survive and eventually rebuild. They’re like adventure novels. In The Leftovers, only enough of the population is missing for practically everyone to be affected in some way. Most people saw someone disappear or they are related to someone who disappeared. But more than enough people are left that life can continue on seemingly unaffected on the surface. Everything is still functional in theory–there is electricity, cars, jobs, grocery stores, food. It’s the grief and the doubts that are crippling: why were certain people taken and why were certain people left behind? It’s really a novel about grief and all the ways that we can lose people. 

The book is slow and beautiful and subtle and devastating but also somewhat hopeful at the end. It also contains one of my favorite passages about motherhood. This passage rips my heart out by its teeth, so I’m going to include it below. 

(This is a letter written by Nora to Kevin, who she is trying and failing to date, about what happened the evening her family disappeared. )

We were having a family dinner.
   It sounds so quaint when you put it that way, doesn’t it? You imagine everyone together, talking and laughing and enjoying their meal. But it wasn’t like that. Things were tense between me and Doug. I understand now why that was, but at the time it just felt to me like he was distracted by work, not fully present in our life. He was always checking that damn Blackberry, snatching it up every time it buzzed like it might contain a message from God. Of course it wasn’t God, it was just his cute little girlfriend, but either way, it was more interesting to him than his own family. I still kind of hate him for that.
The kids weren’t happy, either. They were rarely happy in the evening. Mornings could be fun in our house, and bedtimes were usually sweet, but dinners were often a trial. Jeremy was cranky because … why? I wish I could tell you. Maybe because it’s hard to be six years old, or maybe because it was hard to be him. Little things made him cry, and his crying over little things irritated his father, who sometimes spoke sharply to him and made Jeremy even more upset. Erin was only four, but she had an instinct for getting under her brother’s skin, pointing out in a matter-of-fact voice that Jeremy was crying again, acting like a little baby, which made him absolutely furious.
   I loved them all, okay? My cheating husband, my fragile boy, my sneaky little girl. But I didn’t love my life, not that night. I had worked really hard on the meal — it was this Moroccan chicken recipe I’d found in a magazine — and nobody cared. Doug thought the breasts were a little dry, Jeremy wasn’t hungry, blah blah blah. It was just a crappy night, that’s all.
   And then Erin spilled her apple juice. No big deal, except that she’d made a big fuss about drinking from a cup without a top, even though I told her it was a bad idea. So what, right? It happens. I wasn’t one of those parents who gets all upset about something like that. But that night I was. I said, “Damn it, Erin, what did I tell you!” And then she started to cry.
   I looked at Doug, waiting for him to get up and get some paper towels, but he didn’t move. He just smiled at me like none of this had anything to do with him, like he was floating above it all on some superior plane of existence. So of course I had to do it. I got up and went into the kitchen.
   How long was I there? Thirty seconds, maybe? I gathered a handful of towels, winding them off the roll, wondering if I’d taken enough sheets, or had I possibly taken too many, because I didn’t want to make a second trip but didn’t want to be wasteful, either. I remember being conscious of the chaos I’d left behind, feeling relieved to be away from it, but also resentful and overburdened and unappreciated. I think maybe I closed my eyes, let my mind go blank for a second or two. That was when it must have happened. I remember noticing that the crying had stopped, that the house felt suddenly peaceful.
   So what do you think I did when I got back to the dining room and found them gone? Do you think I screamed or cried or fainted? Or do you think I wiped up the spill, because the puddle was spreading across the table and would soon start dripping onto the floor?
   You know what I did, Kevin.
  I wiped up the fucking apple juice and then I went back into the kitchen, put the soggy paper towels in the garbage can, and rinsed my hands under the faucet. After I dried them, I went back to the dining room and took another look at the empty table, the plates and the glasses and the uneaten food. The vacant chairs. I really don’t know what happened after that. It’s like my memory just stops there and picks up a few weeks later.
   Would it have helped if I told you this story in Florida? Or maybe on Valentine’s Day? Would you have felt like you knew me better? You could have told me what I already think I know — that the crying and the spilled juice aren’t really that important, that all parents get stressed out and angry and wish for a little peace and quiet. It’s not the same as wishing for the people you love to be gone forever.
   But what if it is, Kevin? Then what?
 

The TV series made some interesting but successful adaptions from the book, including giving one of the book’s minor character a much more prominent role. Holy Wayne, a charismatic cult leader, is dismissed as a charlatan in the book. With Holy Wayne in the TV series, we don’t know if he’s for real or not, or if he’s just taking people’s money and giving them hugs–he claims he can hug away people’s pain–but the thing is, people think that he is helping them. People, such as Nora in the scene below, believe he is for real. I think that’s rare and complex, to put practical doubts aside and show a cult leader giving something necessary to the people who believe in him. (I have little patience for cult leaders being shown as simplified one-dimensional villains, as practically every book that contains a cult leader portrays them, but that is a post for another day.) Re-watching this scene, I can understand why some people thought the TV series was overly devastating and dark–I believe it was called “the most dismal show on television.” There is none of that exciting adventure, where people triumph over the landscape/devastation/cannibals, that you often see in post-apocalyptic fiction (for more thoughts along this line, check out this New Yorker essay: “The post-apocalyptic imagination is shot through with unacknowledged wish fulfillment”). People in The Leftovers are certainly not triumphing. They are usually just really, really sad. But I think that’s a more realistic and honest tone than that heroic adventure vibe many apocalyptic books give off. 

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