Laugh until It Hurts by Rebecca

There’s a strange sense of pleasure I get from reading Tom Perrotta. Although his novels have an entertaining, gossipy, and voyeuristic quality, they have substantial substance at their core. They are at once laugh-out-loud funny and acerbic social commentaries. In his latest novel The Leftovers, the world has experienced a rapture-like phenomenon. Millions have disappeared, and those remaining are left to piece together their lives. Disappearances are seemingly random, not breaking down among any affiliation (religious or otherwise). What unfolds is the multitude of ways in which the Garvey family and those around them attempt to explain and understand the event. Laurie Garvey experiences it as abandonment:

Deep in her heart, as soon as it happened, she knew. She’d been left behind. They all had. .. And yet, she chose to ignore this knowledge, to banish it to some murky recess of her mind—the basement storage area for things you couldn’t bear to think about –the same place you hid the knowledge that you were going to die, so you could live your life without being depressed every minute of every day. (3)

In the small community of Mapleton, there are those who honor the departed as heroes, throwing parades in their honor and hosting remembrance ceremonies. To give shape to their days, they attempt to return to school, work, and shopping as quickly as possible. Another group, formed by a self-appointed leader known as Holy Wayne, contends that the “sudden departure” was not THE rapture and sets out to malign the disappeared. The barefoot people are hedonists who see no point in continuing with social conventions. Those in the Guilty Remnant believe that they have been rejected by God and are seeking forgiveness through an ascetic lifestyle, which ironically involves smoking cigarettes. Within the Garvey family, we witness each one of these responses.

It is to Perrotta’s credit that we focus not on the inciting event—this supernatural disappearance of millions—but upon the characters’ emotions and thoughts as they respond to such unexplainable loss. What opens as a dystopic science fiction novel remains firmly rooted in suburban domesticity. We feel compassion for each character even as we are laughing at the absurdity of their situation. Perrotta’s novels make me a little uncomfortable in the way that good social commentaries should—with equal parts absurd humor and existential angst. The Leftovers is a worthy successor to The Abstinence Teacher and Little Children.

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