Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Leftovers from the Rapture (or was it the Rapture?)

If you're looking for a fiction book that's a compelling read, while also a challenging book about religion, pick up Tom Perrotta's new book The Leftovers.  It's a book about what happens when the Rapture--or was it the Rapture?--happens, and the people you'd expect to be taken aren't taken. Worse, there are truly vile people who disappear.  And the fact remains that people aren't sure what actually happened.  Their loved ones were there, and then they weren't.  The book takes place 3 years after the Rapture-like event.

How do the ones left behind make sense of it all and go on with their lives? As I was reading, more than once I said, "This book is the perfect post Sept. 11 book!" And as I kept reading, I thought that it was far broader than that, since very few of us will escape having to wrestle with having been left behind.

Perrotta shows that he understands how religion has been used to meet the emotional needs of vulnerable humans.  He depicts several religious movements in his book that seem chillingly possible.  There's the Guilty Remnant, people who drop out of their families, live in communes, dress in white, and take a vow of silence.  There's a group of barefoot people, neo-hippies, who may be tuned into a higher spiritual plane or maybe they just have access to better drugs.  There's a messiah who leads a movement based on hugs, a movement which quickly degenerates into problematic sex.  It's a brilliant way to dissect the role of religion in our modern lives, by not talking about religions that currently exist, but by creating new ones:  no one is offended, but we get to explore the ways that religion shapes our society.

There are also plenty of characters who aren't ready to believe in these fringe religions, but who must wrestle with which way is best going forward.  Everyone in this book must figure out how to reassemble their lives.

Tom Perrotta is one of our best writers working today who depicts life in suburbia and how ordinary adults experience it.  His depictions through the years of humans who have gotten what they want and now must deal with the implications have always been deeply resonant.  I'm happy to report that as he moves away from strict realism, his insight is no less searing.

In The Leftovers, Perrotta has written a work of zinging satire with characters we really care about--that's no small feat to accomplish.  It's a page-turner, a work of depth that doesn't get mired down in the bogs of preachiness or show-offy mastery of psychological facts.  In short, it's what I want:  a readable book that's not fluff, but compelling enough and zippy enough that I can read it in a week.

Update:  If you want a taste of this book, the good folks at Macmillan have sent this link to a sample from the audio book.  If you click on it, your computer may launch it directly, rather than taking you to a different site where you can click to listen.

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