We’re agnostics, she used to tell her kids, back when they were little and needed a way to define themselves to their Catholic and Jewish, and Unitarian friends. We don’t know if there’s a God, and nobody else does, either. They might say they do, but they really don’t.
The first time she’d heard about the Rapture, she was a freshman in college, taking a class called Intro to World Religions. The phenomenon the professor described seemed like a joke to her, hordes of Christians floating out of their clothes, rising up through the roofs of their house and cars to meet Jesus in the sky, everyone else standing around with their mouths hanging open, wondering where all the good people had gone. The theology remained murky to her…Every once in a while, in the years that followed she’d spot someone reading the Left Behind books in an airport or on a train, and feel a twinge of pity, and even a little bit of tenderness, for the poor sucker who had nothing better to read, and nothing else to do, except sit around dreaming about the end of the world.
And then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true, or at least partly true. People disappeared, millions of them at the same time, all over the world…This was real. The Rapture happened in her own hometown, to her best friend’s daughter, among others, while Laurie herself was i the house. God’s intrusion into her life couldn’t have been any clearer if He’d addressed her from a burning azalea. (pgs. 1-2)
In Tom Perotta’s novel, The Leftovers, a “Rapture-like” event has taken place three years earlier. “Rapture-like” because a wide variety of people were take – of all faiths (including non-believers), homosexuals, adulterers, etc and because the tribulations as prophesied in the Bible do not take place. What you have left is…the Leftovers – the un-chosen, the remnants. And these survivors are struggling, even after three years to deal with loss on a monumental scale and to deal with the unknown because the departure remains unexplained.
Perotta takes this epic scale loss and brings it down to the personal level focusing on a family of survivors (they lost no one in their family) in a small New England town. Steve Garvey, a well-to-do retired businessman becomes mayor in an effort to help bring the town and its citizens back to some sort of normalcy. His son Tom drops out of college and joins one of the many up and coming cults that have formed since the event. Laurie, Steve’s wife, joins a separate cult, and Jill, the teenage daughter is left with her father to struggle through life with little guidance. And then there is Nora, known as the “saddest woman in the world” as she lost her husband and two young children.
This was a difficult book for me to read. I had trouble getting into it, trouble caring for the characters (except for Jill). I also want to put everyone in the book into intensive therapy. In fact, one member of my book group really liked the book for that reason – she has just completed her degree in Counseling and she said the book was “a psychologist’s dream”. It was hard for me to remember that the loss was everyone’s and so deep that three years later it was still all they could focus on.
What did work for me was the cults. It makes sense that in a senseless situation, people crave structure. When faced with the unexplainable, people will turn to a collective. We see this with Steve trying to create community and ritual through governance rather than religion. Nora watches Sponge Bob cartoons in the evening journaling her thoughts to her now non-existent son as well as obsessively riding her bike on the same route day after day regardless of the weather. I liked the different cults and their differing approaches. The way each came about and the reasons for their continued existence, their rituals and their methods of both survival and growth was fascinating.
The cult that looms the largest in the book is the Guilty Remnant. The G.R. is a cult that focuses on reminding people of what happened. They do this by following people around and staring at them while smoking (a symbol of not needing to worry about the long-term). They take a vow of silence and their motto is “Don’t waste your breath.” This is the cult Laurie joins because she needed to escape:
“…the unreality of pretending things were more or less okay, that they’d hit a bump on the road and should just keep on going, attending to their duties, uttering their empty phrases, enjoying the simple pleasures that the world still insisted on offering. And she’d found what she was looking for in the G.R., a regime of hardship and humiliation that at least offered you the dignity of feeling like your existence bore some sort of relationship to reality, that you were no longer engaged in a game for make-believe that would consume the rest of your life.” (pg. 121)
While I have not read anything else by Perotta, my impression is that he likes to write about global issues and bring them down to the personal level. In this novel, the global worked for me and the personal did not. While I enjoyed the cults on a theoretical level, the fascination broke down for me when it came down to the individual characters. While it was not a book I enjoyed, it is an excellent choice for book groups because of the many possible discussions you could have ranging from loss and recovery to religion and culture.