Did you grow up religious? I was raised in a cocktail of Catholicism (my mom) and Southern Baptism (my dad’s side), so whether or not I consider myself either of these things, my perspective and ideas of the world are colored by my experiences with both. Perhaps this is why books with premises like The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta are particularly fascinating to me. Most Christians believe in God and Jesus as the one way to Heaven, the one true belief. Possibilities such as the botched Rapture that occurs in Perrotta’s novel may well be considered blasphemous, propaganda from an unbelieving public.
As I read, I slipped back and forth between the two perspectives. I wondered what my family would think of this book, what my childhood pastors would say about my reading this type of fiction. And I realized that perhaps it is this type of fiction, this type of reaction that fuels my love for the art. Sure, non-fiction causes all kinds of controversy these days, but fiction allows us to live out lives we can never know. It allows us to flesh out ideas, theories about our beliefs, our experiences, our flickers of thought. We can anticipate human reactions to horrible situations without actually having to live through an apocalypse or a Rapture. We can process our real lives in a realm that is safe, a petri dish of imagination.
The Leftovers takes place post-Rapture, mostly in Mapleton, a small town presumably in the Midwest. Locals in the town are dealing with the mysterious disappearances of loved ones, neighbors, old friends. They are caught in a struggle between accepting that those who were taken were rejects, or that they themselves are the “leftovers” implicated in the title. Much like fanatic religion is sometimes considered a method of coping, entire groups of Americans are coming up with their own ways to deal with the Rapture. The Barefoot People, who it seems take much of their philosophy from the 60s and 70s, walk around without shoes, showers, or purpose. If it wasn’t for the target painted on their foreheads (so God will recognize them), you might think they’re a bunch of transients, which they pretty much are. There are the Holy Wayners, followers of a man corrupted by his rise to fame after discovering an uncanny ability to literally take others’ pain away. The Guilty Remnant – a group of those who can no longer live in the world as it returns to normal – walks around smoking cigarettes and silently reminding those left behind that the world will never be the same.
The possibilities of human reaction to a worldwide event such as happens in The Leftovers are endless, and it was fun to think about these as I read. Perrotta is adept at setting his characters up for great success or great failure. The characters’ flaws in this novel are recognizable and only unforgivable in their unwillingness to change.
I’ve heard stories about people shaken from complacency by blows like cancer or the sudden death of a loved one. But those instances are personal, specific to the people experiencing and living them. Except in cases of natural disaster or national tragedy, rarely does a large group of people have to adjust to a new way of life all at once. Perrotta takes it beyond, and makes the whole world reassess itself, revealing the dangers of a faith suddenly lost, of facts suddenly fiction. I loved this novel at first for its premise, for its willingness to go someplace I had never really contemplated before. By the end, I loved it for the revelation that everything is fragile. That changes as drastic as a worldwide Rapture that doesn’t quite fit Biblical prophesy aren’t necessary for the major shifts that happen to the citizens of Mapleton. For the most part, these shifts are asked of us without the luxury of a worldwide catastrophe, and we must learn to live in a world unrecognizable.