Wednesday, February 29, 2012

For Perrotta, being left behind is not the end of the world

Originally printed Sept. 14, 2011.

Last week, I watched an illegally YouTube-posted version of the 1973 religious cult classic, "A Thief in the Night." It proved to be as shlocky and unprofessionally produced an apocalyptic horror feature as I excepted. But the last time I saw the movie -- at a church service when I was 7 or 8 -- it terrified my little brother and me so much that we grabbed hands and ran down the aisle to the altar shouting, "We don't want to be left behind!"

There's very little about that cinematic experience -- or its more recent literary reincarnation in the "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins -- that's comparable to Tom Perrotta's new novel, "The Leftovers."

Yes, there is a Rapture (or a Sudden Disappearance) that seems to fulfill the literalist readings of the New Testament by the Premillennial Dispensationlists. But there's no anti-Christ, no Mark of the Beast, no One World Order and no multi-year Tribulation.

There's just a bunch of people trying to make sense of what happened on Oct. 14 -- the day when about a tenth of the world's population just ... vanished.

» Most of those left behind struggle over how to go back to their Oct. 13 lives. (The U.S. president has to give a speech encouraging people to go back to school and to work in order to get the economy going again.)

» A large minority try to carve out a new identity and new purpose in an Oct. 15 world. (A local minister, so upset about having been left behind, begins to print a newsletter featuring all the dark sinful secrets of those who vanished.)

» And a small number dedicate themselves to actively disrupting anyone from ever being able to move on to the next stage of grief. (The members of a new religious organization, the Guilty Remnant, dress themselves in all white, take up smoking again and stand silently as "living reminders of God's awesome power" and how "his judgment is upon us.")

But the situation is made all the more confusingly random because Perrotta's Rapture is utterly ecumenical -- taking as many "Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Mormons and Zorastrians" as born-again Christians.

As the narrator writes of the television coverage after the disappearances, "There were so many different levels of fame, and they all kept getting mixed together -- the nerdy guy in the Verizon ads and the retired Supreme Court Justice, the Latin American tyrant and the quarterback who'd never fulfilled his potential, the witty political consultant and that chick who'd been dissed on The Bachelor. According to the Food Network, the small world of superstar chefs had been disproportionately hard hit."

Given the novel's fixation on a specific date, "The Leftovers" could be shelved nicely alongside Jonathan Safran's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," Amy Waldman's "The Submission" and Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland" as Perrotta's attempt to make some fictional sense of Sept. 11 in a Sept. 12th world. But it's equally well placed alongside Kevin Brockmeier's recent novel, "The Illumination," in which every human being's pain suddenly starts to manifest physically as such a bright light that doctors have to start wearing sunglasses.

And if Perrotta's "The Leftovers" ever gets made into a movie, I can only hope the filmmakers match the quality of the adaptations of his other novels, "Election" and "Little Children," and manage to leave "A Thief in the Night" far, far behind.

Opinion editor Jeff Charis-Carlson can be contacted at

No comments:

Post a Comment