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Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A writer deals with success as not the end of the world

Tom Perrotta’s new novel,The Leftovers,concentrates on a suburban family and its struggles to cope after the Rapture leaves them untouched.

Written by New York Times | Published: September 4, 2011 12:11:12 am


The Rapture came at a good time for Tom Perrotta.

In May,when the Christian radio host Harold Camping and his followers were preparing for the end of the world (now rescheduled),Perrotta was finishing up his new novel,The Leftovers. Its subject? A “Rapturelike phenomenon” in which millions of people vanish one day,leaving their friends and families unsure how to respond.

It’s hardly typical fare for Perrotta,a chronicler of suburban dysfunction best known for his 2004 novel,Little Children,about a young mother’s infidelity and her neighbourhood’s campaign against a pedophile. That book,his fifth,was turned into a film starring Kate Winslet,and Perrotta received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay he wrote with the director Todd Field.

Yet if the supernatural subject of The Leftovers is a departure for Perrotta,his treatment of it is not. The novel,which Perrotta is adapting for an HBO series,concentrates on a suburban family and its struggles to cope after the Rapture leaves them untouched.

“I used to describe myself as a comic novelist,” he said recently,“but my concerns seem to have darkened over the past few years. I no longer believe that just about everything is funny,if viewed from the proper angle.”

On the cover of The New York Times Book Review this week,Stephen King praised the novel as “a troubling disquisition on how ordinary people react to extraordinary and inexplicable events,the power of family to hurt and to heal,and the unobtrusive ease with which faith can slide into fanaticism.” In her review Michiko Kakutani,the Times’s chief book critic,noted a disconnect between the novel’s “splashy,Hollywoodlike premise” and the author’s “talent for smaller-scale portraits.”

Perrotta,a cheerful,compact 50-year-old,started thinking hard about the subject while researching evangelical culture for his 2007 novel,The Abstinence Teacher, about a divorced sex-ed instructor who becomes entangled with an evanglical group.

“I kept bumping up against the Rapture scenario,” he said,“And I got in that ‘What if?’ mode. What if this happened,what would it be like three or four years in? Because three or four years is an eternity in this culture.”

After graduating from Yale with a degree in English,Perrotta studied writing at Syracuse University,where he met his future wife and formed a lasting friendship with his teacher Tobias Wolff. “I still remember Tom’s application story,” Wolff said,“and considering the many,many thousands of these I have read through the years,that’s saying something.”

Perrotta was raised Roman Catholic,but considers himself an agnostic. “I’ve been a little bit obsessed with religion,without being a religious person,for about a decade,” he said. But the Rapture in The Leftovers,he emphasised,isn’t meant to be the Christian Rapture at all. He said: “Even though I like using the word ‘Rapture’ because it makes it clear what happened,I also want to disconnect it from its religious context. I was interested in borrowing this scenario to think about collective trauma and grief and the speed of history.”

Inevitably,those themes assume added resonance with the arrival of The Leftovers so close to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. But while Perrotta described the terrorist attacks as an inspiration,he said the book was fundamentally more personal.

“I have led a fairly charmed life,but I’m 50 years old,” Perrotta said. “You know,you just watch people leave the world,and you get this sense of living among absences. So I think it was a kind of a midlife book. “I know that feeling. I know that feeling of being left behind. We’re always being left behind,we’re always living in a world where there are these spaces where people we knew and loved used to be.”

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