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. )
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.