Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Rapture or Something like it

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta (Random House, 2011) 355 pages
The Leftovers, HBO series, Sundays 10pm

On a certain October 14th, roughly three years before the novel begins, 2% of population completely disappears from the planet. Those who remain are mystified and demoralized by their disappearance. Was it The Rapture? If so, why were the good, the bad and the indifferent all taken together indiscriminately? The ascension of Pope Benedict makes some sense but Jennfier Lopez? Gary Busey? Conveniently, some of the planet's most annoying inhabitants have disappeared. This is an instance where Perrotta's sly wit peeks through the misery depicted here.

This, my dear heathens, is an explanation of the Rapture:
"For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord." Thessalonians 4:16–17

I don't think it's too much of stretch to say that the aftermath of the Sudden Departure depicted in this book (akin to some like the biblical prophesy of the coming Rapture) serves as a sort of metaphor for the events following 9-11.

It is a traumatized populace that remains and their actions evoke the hysteria, confusion and extremism that arose in America in the wake of 9-11: maudlin memorialization of the event and of the departed, religious extremism, acts of violent retribution. "Have you see ...?" posters litter the landscape, religious cults thrive, families are driven apart. People are anxious, depressed, suicidal, confused.

In the HBO series, Kevin Garvey (a compellingly intense Justin Theroux) is the beleaguered Chief of Police of Mapleton, NY (rather than its mild-mannered Mayor as depicted in the book). His wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman) has joined a cult called the Guilty Remnants. 

They wear white, have taken a vow of silence and smoke cigarettes incessantly. They are not a cult they say but a lifestyle. They also annoy the hell out of the general populace by posting themselves in front of people's houses and places of work and watch them. This is just as creepy and disturbing as it sounds when shot in the series. Why do they watch? "It was supposed to remind you that God was watching, keeping track of your smallest actions ..." It also provokes violent assaults on the members of the Guilty Remnants.

Kevin's son Tom, a college drop out who has the misfortune of entering college a month before the Sudden Departure, has joined a different cult lead by a charismatic huckster self-named Holy Wayne who transfers his acolytes' pain from them to himself by way of a hug. He also has a penchant for impregnating a traveling harem of teenage Asian girls who are zealously guarded by young college-age men such as Tom.

Kevin's daughter Jill, a punky sort of free spirit with a shaved head, continues to live with her father but secretly mourns her mother's flight and exhibits the usual bitchy teenage behavior, reluctantly getting high with her new friend Aimee who has ensconced herself in the Garvey household after she claims that her stepfather is making moves on her. She, it seems, has her beady eye on Kevin.

Justin Theroux, more than just Aniston's boy toy
The Rev. Matt Jamison is angered by the Sudden Departure claiming that it could not be the Rapture as he would have been the "the first in line" to leave. He devotes himself to publishing salacious and unpleasant details about the departed persons' lives in order to prove that they were not more godly than him. His revelatory posters incite both hatred and the occasional beating from affronted relatives.

Nora Durst (soon to be, we learn, Kevin's love interest) is a "grief celebrity" in Mapleton, a nationally recognized figure  - someone who has "lost more than anyone" - a husband and two children. She lectures on the Sudden Departure but in the series has a more nuanced role and complex personality. She interviews relatives of the departed to determine how, and if, they should receive compensation from the government by answering precisely 150 questions. Her behavior is somewhat odd but understandable. In the novel, Perrotta has her watching an endless loop of Spongebob cartoons favoured by her son. In the series, she more poignantly purchases the favourite foods of her family, then replenishes them when they go stale presumably in the event of their return.

But the series is darker than the book ... much darker. Kevin leads an alternate life where much of his anger and frustration about what has happened is vent. Nora (Carrie Coon) releases her grief in dangerous and unexpected ways. Laurie is harsher, more controlling and judgmental in the series. Jill's (Sarah Margaret Qualley) behaviour is wanton and confused but she is less the stereotype of the alienated teenager, more a sensitive, emotional young adult with real concerns. 

There is a disturbing minor character Dean (played with terrifying menace by Michael Gaston) who has taken it upon himself to kill all the dogs in Mapleton and he appears to serve as Kevin's more violent doppelganger in the series.

Perrotta, author of the equally commercially successful books Election and Little Children, is not a beautiful writer but he is extremely engaging - tapping into the inner workings of the male and female sensibility with equal finesse. I have the say the premise is brilliant and the characters well fleshed out.

As I said, I find the series to be more exceptional. Two episodes to go in the series .. cannot wait to see how this all ends.

No comments: