I haven’t watched the series adaptation yet, so I have no idea how many seasons I might be about to spoil…
Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers (2011) has five focal characters, four immediate family members–two parents, Laurie and Kevin, and their near-grown son, Tom, and daughter, Jill–and a woman, Nora, one of the Garvey family’s fellow Mapleton citizens. Nora serves as a foil to the Garveys, having lost her husband and two young children in the catastrophic event that occurred prior to the novel’s beginning, in which millions of the world’s citizens disappeared in a Rapture-like event that would seem not to be the Rapture from the number of sinning nonbelievers who vanished.
The Garveys have all remained in tact following the non-Rapture–at least physically. But the family itself has pretty much fallen apart. The main action of the book occurs three years after the non-Rapture. Laurie has run off to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult-like group that refuses to carry on with life as usual in the wake of what’s happened. Kevin has become mayor of the small town, trying to restore normalcy through the very activities his wife has fled. Jill, a senior in high school, slips from stellar student to party animal when her new friend Aimee moves into the house. Tom, away at college when the non-Rapture happened, has also joined a cult-like group that differs from the Guilty Remnant in that it follows a single leader, Holy Wayne, whose pregnant teen wife Tom is charged with protecting once Holy Wayne is arrested for having sex with teens.
The book, with five main characters, is notably divided into five parts, though these aren’t individually given to each character. Instead each chapter flits between the main characters’ points of view, switching at section breaks, representative of the ongoing influence the characters have over one another, and the entanglement of their fates.
Kevin begins dating Nora, who finds herself unable to emotionally invest in him, and so Kevin increasingly takes solace from a questionable developing friendship with Jill’s friend Aimee, who, once she’s drawn Jill into sufficient delinquency, abandons the party scene for a job and maturity. Jill, clearly the one suffering the most from her mother’s absence, hangs out with friends she doesn’t emotionally connect with and is eventually persuaded by a former teacher to swing by the Guilty Remnant’s headquarters to see how she likes things there. Tom falls in love with his pregnant charge Christine as they travel across the country together disguised as “Barefoot People” and await the birth of an alleged prophet. The Guilty Remnant, whose members work in pairs, partners Laurie with Meg, whom she forms a strong bond with and is eventually ordered to kill as part of a G.R. tradition in which a martyr situation is staged to call the public’s attention to the fact that things ain’t ever gonna be the way they used to be. Nora, following the flameout with Kevin, decides something is irrevocably broken inside her and to change her identity and appearance and move away.
As per standard Perrotta fare, what initially appears to be merely character-driven vignettes showing us what life would be like in the wake of such an odd incomprehensible disaster, making us ponder how our actions and reactions define us and how we ourselves would react if put to such a test, is actually tightly plotted. The threads come together in a bow that’s pretty much as neat as it can be without being too neat. The plot trajectory could be described by a passage from the last chapter, when Kevin’s playing a softball game:
It must have been a towering shot, because it seemed for a second or two that the ball had left the earth’s atmosphere and wouldn’t be coming down. And then he saw it, a bright speck streaking across the sky, arcing downward. He lifted his arm and opened his glove. The ball dropped into the pocket with a resounding smack, as if it had been heading there the whole time and was happy to reach its destination.
And just as that ball is reaching its destination, so are the plot threads. While Kevin is at that game bumming out about Aimee’s having moved out that day, Tom, whom his dad hasn’t seen in probably a year and whom Christine has left with the baby after Holy Wayne finally plead guilty to his crimes, swings by and leaves the still nameless baby on his father’s front porch. Nora then discovers the baby when she comes by to leave Kevin a note telling him she’s leaving forever. Meanwhile, Jill is on her way to her very first “sleepover” at the Guilty Remnant when she hears a gunshot–Meg killing herself when Laurie is unable to pull the trigger. Laurie gets in a pickup car that speeds off, and in the next scene we see a car stop in front of Jill. But it’s not Laurie’s. It’s two stoner acquaintances of Jill’s from school whom she refused a ride from early on in the novel in an effort not to skip a chemistry test she winds up being too late to take anyway–a scene that seems trivial until you realize later that this was Jill’s last-ditch effort to cling to her old pre-tragedy self, the moment she realizes it’s too late and she can’t anymore. (This is the dilemma all the characters are facing to one extent or another, the organizing principle dictating what scenes we’re getting: attempts to salvage and/or discard their pre-tragedy identities.) This time, Jill accepts a ride from them, choosing not to go down the path her mother went down to the Guilty Remnant. And finally, in the last scene, Kevin returns home from his game, the big question being what he will or won’t find on the porch. He finds Nora, holding the baby. And the last line:
“Look what I found,” she told him.
Perrotta’s treatment of this plot embodies the difference between literary fiction and fiction designed purely for mindless entertainment. In the latter, the plot trajectory would have been dictated by the discovery/revelation of what actually literally happened with that whole non-Rapture. We would have gotten some explanation about where the disappeared had gone, or where they had gone would wind up becoming directly relevant to the plot in some way–like someone coming back from the beyond, or a followup catastrophe occurring. The question of what was the unifying factor in those who disappeared would likely be answered or at least broached. But none of that is what this book is about. It’s about how we live our lives in the face of the unknown, how we get out of bed every morning when we know in the backs of our minds that the eventual price for being able to do so will be death. Really, the characters in the novel have just entered a more extreme version of our own circumstances. The non-Rapture event merely presents them with more unignorable evidence of the plight we’re already in–that we’ll all disappear one day, and we have no idea where we’ll go when we do. A plot that actually answered that question wouldn’t be true to life. It would be an escape from it.