Monday, June 18, 2012

A Better Take on 'Left Behind'

When I was in high school, I started reading the Left Behind series.  At some point my freshman year, I realized the books were crap--and much, much later, I found this awesome blog who took it upon himself to painstakingly read and comment on the series as a way of exposing the problems with a particular religious mindset.

Since then, I've encountered other takes on the theme: what would happen if the Rapture were to really happen?  A particularly excellent version was this graphic novel that postulated that if the Rapture happened, it would open to the door to all sorts of supernatural occurrences, such as avenging angels and talking animals.  So when I heard about Tom Perrotta's new novel, The Leftovers, I was intrigued.  Having previously read his excellent The Abstinence Teacher, I added the novel to my to-read list after I received it for Christmas.

Perrotta places what he calls The Sudden Departure in a prologue, and he focuses his novel not on the event itself, but on the repercussions of the random disappearance of millions on a few characters in the small town, Mapleton.  There's the Garvey family, who lost no one in their family, but whose four members react differently to the event, including Laurie (the mother) and Tom (the son), who both turn to fanatical religion as a way to make sense of the post-event world.  There's Nora, who lost her husband and children to the event and who struggles to reconnect with the world of family and relationships.  Because Perrotta writes the disappearances as having no reason, the vanished individuals sharing no common characteristic, the quest to understand why drives the characters to cope in often extreme (or not-so-extreme) ways.

The beauty of the novel is that it doesn't attempt to examine the effects of such an event on some large, global scale.  Instead, Perrotta focuses on the small ripples, the reactions of a few individuals to dig into their psyches.  Characters turn to religion, to other people, to themselves, to drugs in an attempt to comprehend the event, to forget it, or to deal with the gnawing hole in their hearts.  And Perrotta doesn't moralize or attempt to establish universals; he portrays the characters and their relationships to one another, their conversations and their thoughts, to demonstrate the trauma and sense of desperation these characters experience.

Overall, I thought the book was well conceived and well written.  It takes what used to be an eye-roll inducing theme and turns it into something intriguing.  While some characters are not as well developed as others, and some story lines are dropped or never reach a close, the novel is executed well.  It was one of those books that I find myself thinking about long after I read the final words and shut the cover.  If you're as intrigued as I am with authors who use small snapshots of everyday life to explore the depth of human emotions and motivations, you'll enjoy this book.

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