Sunday, August 21, 2011

Perrotta’s Warmed Over Leftovers

I looked forward to Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, a novel about the aftermath of a rapture-like event known as the Sudden Departure: I found lots of promise in the book’s prologue, which mentions a feeling of rejection among people who weren’t taken away during the instantaneous, nondenominational disappearance of millions. After the mention of the Departed Heroes’ Day of Remembrance and Reflection and a heated argument in the first chapter, I expected lots of telling 21st-century conflict, maybe an apocalyptically angry religious right fighting with grieving family members over religion, memory, and news coverage. Alas, it wasn’t to be: The Leftovers fizzled out for me like Harold Camping’s doomsday warnings of May 2011.

Oddly, I think the biggest problem with the novel is its verisimilitude: Perrotta creates grieving, confused characters who numb themselves with typical stuff like agreeability, teenage sex and drinking, adult screenings of SpongeBob, and peculiar cult-like activity. The central characters are the Garvey family: father Kevin (agreeability), mother Laurie (joins Guilty Remnants religious group that limits talking, requires smoking), college-age son Tom (joins Healing Hug Movement), and high school student daughter Jill (drinks, skips school). None of the Garvey family disappeared, though Jill was with a not-so-close-anymore friend who vanished whilst YouTubing.

All that agreeability, uncommunicativeness, and avoidance might reflect real ways people grieve and handle stress, and they may show how people, survivors, depart without departing because they wall themselves off from their friends and family. But it’s tricky to propel a novel with inertness and inertia, particularly when the reader knows an angry-as-hell character like Reverend Jamison, who wonders why he wasn’t worthy of being whooshed from the earth, is lurking around town, ready to reveal the sins of the departed. Yes, Jamison breaks the story of Nora Durst’s husband’s affair but there’s no showdown, and Jamison gets very little ink.

I think my other biggest problem with the book is that the narrative voice felts a pinch too snarky, ironic, and/or smug for the book to generate much empathy for the characters, their situations, or the human condition, even though I had no trouble believing everyone hurt. The novel didn’t quite feel like satire, either, and absurdity would be an even bigger stretch. The tone felt out of balance, and I came away with the impression that Perrotta backed away from the edginess and riskiness he’d begun to establish in the book’s early pages.

Tension does develop—finally!—in the book’s last 50-75 pages, when [mild spoiler alert!] we confirm what we suspect about Laurie’s Guilty Remnants, a couple doesn’t quite make it, Jill starts to sort things out, and Tom finishes his job escorting a teenage mother who’s given birth to a baby fathered by the head healing hugger. Perrotta frenetically jumps between subplots then neatly ends the novel with something resembling a clean slate. Maybe Perrotta intends it as a final cliché in a novel filled with predictable turns? Whatever, as they say. I was indifferent by the time I got to the end of this readable but disappointing book: I was ready to move on with my reading life, finish mourning The Leftovers that might’ve been, and search my shelves for a book I’d enjoy more.

Disclaimers: I received an advance review copy of The Leftovers from St. Martin’s Press at BookExpo America. Thank you!

Up Next: Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude.

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