‘What mostly struck her, reading the files, was how deceptively normal things seemed in Mapleton.’ Swap ‘deceptively’ for ‘boringly’ or ‘frustratingly’ and you have the whole story of this book. To set the scene: the world has been struck by a Rapture-like phenomenon, a supernatural mass abduction echoing the harvest of the faithful predicted in the Bible. One day, at the same moment, millions of people mysteriously vanish: ‘Jennifer Lopez, Shaq … Vladimir Putin and the Pope’, as well as – and this is the important point – many ‘ordinary’ Americans, including Laurie Garvey’s daughter’s best friend, Jen, spirited away ‘in the time it takes to click a mouse’.
It is an arresting premise. If they haven’t been taken by God, where have the vanished gone? No one saw them leave, and the generic small town of Mapleton is curiously free of CCTV. Forlorn missing-person notices cover telephone poles and supermarket corkboards. Yet if it is God, it is no God anyone can recognise. ‘An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all,’ and this one includes Jews, Muslims, even homosexuals (population in Mapleton: zero).
Despairing, Laurie leaves her family and joins the Guilty Remnant, a cult that believes the Rapture was a punishment for humanity’s sins. Why does she do this? It is hard to say. We know she gets something out of it, because when her husband, Kevin, sees her she looks ‘strangely youthful’, more like ‘the fun-loving girl he’d known in college than the heavyhearted, thick-waisted woman who’d walked out on him’. (This is a novel where women are ‘pretty but fragile-looking’; ‘pretty, voluptuously chunky’; ‘wholesome, freckle-faced’; ‘lovely, energetic … innocent and wholesome’.) That insight is the closest we get to Laurie’s motivation. Seeing through her eyes remains an astonishingly prosaic experience. When, at a critical point, she is moved to a cult safe house, her first impression is of a ‘renovated kitchen’ with ‘stainless steel appliances’ and ‘a restaurant quality stove’.
Rapid action can sustain almost any banality, but The Leftovers doesn’t even have that. The plot is neutered at the start by Perrotta’s decision to squander the drama of the Rapture in a prologue. The compelling detail of the disappearances and the immediate response to them is disposed of in eight hurried pages that read like the treatment for an HBO series (which, in a way, they were: there was a series in development even before publication). We join the action three years later, necessitating a seventy-page bout of nostalgia to put those events in context. Yet, one senses, Perrotta is happier. He has escaped his heroic premise and is back on the familiar terrain of lads-mag social comment.
As Laurie reads those ‘deceptively normal’ files – the records of the Guilty Remnant’s surveillance of her friends and family in Mapleton – she finds herself thinking of ‘vegetarian lasagne’. The three lines allotted to this bathetic dish are almost as many as are given to the global reaction to the biggest event since Genesis. Too much lasagne, not enough meat.