I lived in Delhi for a short while when I was younger and had the misfortune of attending a school run by an evangelical despot. Each dreary day began with proclamations of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone and badly sung hymns, made more painful by the fact that many were in Hindi (Is chhoti jeevan gaadi ko tu hi chalaye prahbu). “Will you be among the chosen?” was a question the principal often asked when concluding his diatribe (in between relieving himself of frequent wedgies from the expansive cleft in his arse). The ‘chosen’ feature prominently in Perrotta’s The Leftovers, making their presence felt through their absence.
In the world of The Leftovers, October 14 is a significant day (eerily, I began the book on October 14). On this day, millions of ordinary people across the world vanish in what’s termed the Sudden Departure. Many view the event as the realization of the Christian concept of the rapture when the good and the decent (aka those who have accepted Jesus Christ as their saviour) are whisked away to heaven where they get to enjoy all you can eat buffets and parlour games for what’s left of eternity. The novel, though, is not about the chosen. It is, as the title suggests, about those who were left behind. The trouble is that those who have disappeared seem to have been selected quite randomly. Their numbers include Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, homosexuals and a fair few who have led anything but pious lives. The tension and insecurity caused by not being selected seems to far outweigh any impact on society by the missing. In fact, things seem to chug along as if nothing had happened and yet the lives of the leftovers will never be the same again.
The Garvey family live in Mapleton, a quiet New Jerseyish exurb. Kevin Garvey becomes the town mayor after the Sudden Departure. He seems the most unaffected by the event in the family. His daughter Jill witnesses the disappearance of a friend and subsequently goes rogue. His son Tom is incongruously affected when he hears of the disappearance of a classmate he hadn’t seen in years and was never close to in the first place. He drops out of a college and joins what is billed to be a support group. Kevin’s wife Laurie who initially seems the most stable of the lot surprises us by joining a creepy cult.
Cults proliferate in this post-rapture world. The Barefoot People avoid showering and wearing footwear while acting out hedonistic hippie fantasies. The Healing Hug movement which counts Tom Garvey as a member, begins as an innocent share and care and develops into a dodgy group centring on its leader, Holy Wayne, who impregnates underage girls with the goal of birthing a messiah. But none are as disturbing as the Guilty Remnant whose members take a vow of silence, wear white garb and live secluded lives except when they come out to follow ordinary citizens around, lighting up in public – “we smoke to proclaim our faith” they say.
There are no explanations as to why the Sudden Departure occurred nor is there even a slightest movement towards some kind of resolution. Perrotta is interested in something far deeper. He indolently explores the impact of the event on those who are left behind. In doing so, he throws up uneasy questions about our values and what we perceive to be the purpose of living. Rev. Matt Jamison, a Baptist pastor is most discomfited at not having been whisked away. So much so that he starts publishing a newsletter detailing the sordid lives of those who were taken to prove that it was a false rapture. Nora is inconsolable when her affluent and contented existence is disrupted by the disappearance of her husband and two children. When Rev. Jamison publishes evidence of her husband’s infidelity, she realizes that “She wasn’t a tragic widow, after all, just another woman betrayed by a selfish man. It was a smaller, more familiar role, and a lot easier to play.”
In the hands of another, The Leftovers could have turned into an exercise in flippancy or worse a funereal work weighted down by the gravitas of its pivotal event. Perrotta writes with a remarkable degree of poise and clarity. His narrative is a sharp knife, unafraid to cut characters and their actions down to their very bones. And yet, it’s melodic and easygoing, almost as if someone were whistling an impromptu but cheerful tune.
After finishing the book, I was left wondering whether an event like Perrotta’s Sudden Departure would affect other cultures in the same way for I feel he describes a very American reaction. What would Indians do? Would they deliberate and grieve, wallowing in an existential miasma? Or would they move on?
The Leftovers asks many questions and doesn’t answer most of them. It’s an oddly intriguing work.