Examining 'The Leftovers,' After The Rapture
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This interview was originally broadcast on August 25, 2011. The Leftovers is now available in paperback.
Last year, California-based preacher Harold Camping announced that the beginning of the end of the world would take place on May 21, 2011. The date passed by with no apparent rapture, and Camping became the butt of many late-night talk show jokes.
But what if the rapture did actually occur? That's the premise of Tom Perrotta's latest novel, The Leftovers, which examines the aftermath of an unexplained rapturelike event in which millions of people around the globe inexplicably disappear into thin air.
Perrotta tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he got the idea for the novel while traveling around the country, doing speaking engagements for The Abstinence Teacher, his novel about small-town culture wars.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity, and obviously the rapture kept coming up," he says. "My first impulse was ... to laugh it off — it's sort of a funny idea, people just floating away. But I kept thinking: What if it did happen? ... I thought, I'm such a skeptic that even if it did happen, I would resist the implications of it, and I also thought that three years later, everyone would have forgotten about it. No matter what horrible thing happens in the world, the culture seems to move on."
Perrotta's novel takes place after the rapture, in a small New Jersey suburb, where families are trying to get on with their lives. The Garvey family, for instance, didn't lose any family members in the rapture but has fallen apart in the aftermath. The father, Kevin, watches as his teenagers change and his wife, Laurie, leaves his house to join a cult called "The Guilty Remnant," whose members dress all in white and take a vow of silence.
Tom Perrotta is the author of several novels, including Election and Little Children.
Mark Ostow/Courtesy Tom Perrotta
"The thing that makes [members of the 'Guilty Remnant'] so distinctive is that they're smoking constantly," says Perrotta. "It's a declaration of faith and a sense that they have that there's no future and they don't have to worry about their health. ... They see themselves as living reminders. They see themselves as bearing witness, and there is this guilty sense — they believe that they were rejected by God."
Perrotta says he wanted to play with the idea that being alive — or left behind — was somehow more of a punishment instead of a gift.
"No one in the Garvey family has disappeared, and yet a number of them are all haunted by losses," he says. "Laurie's best friend's daughter is gone. And somehow that disappearance has shocked her out of her own life, and she spends a lot of time helping her friend grieve. And that grief, she says, feels sort of right — and it's the place where she needs to live. She can't find her way back to any kind of normal life."
Perrotta is also the author of Little Children, a take on parenthood and suburbia, and the novels Joe College and Election. Election was made into the 1999 movie of the same name.
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“You will be like the wings of a dove covered with silver, And her feathers with yellow gold.” — Psalm 68:13
“O that I had wings like a dove then I would fly away and be at rest.”