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Review – The Leftovers by Tom Perotta

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Tom Perotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, about a town recovering from a rapture-like event, is the basis for HBO’s brooding new series of the same name. Perotta is no stranger to book-to-screen adaptations: he wrote both Little Children and Election.

The Leftovers, as a novel, has little of the darker style and mysterious mood conveyed with in the HBO series. The novel feels overwhelming, funny, and sad in the same way that Colson Whitehead’s Zone One feels overwhelming, funny, and sad. Perotta and Whitehead delve into what happens after an immediate global crisis begins to fade, and people must keep on living daily life. Survivors realize there is laundry to be done, homework to be completed, and small talk to be made at the dinner table. While Whitehead explores the equivalent of day-in-day-out garbage removal in a post-zombie apocalypse city, in The Leftovers, Perotta creates a more open, and perhaps more intriguing, concept.

If you haven’t been watching the show, here’s the general plot summary for both the novel and the series: a “random harvest” of people throughout the globe has disappeared, in an event neutrally coined as the “Sudden Departure.” Immediate panic subsides as the event seems to be a singular occurrence, and government investigations find no clear answer or medical explanation. Connections to the rapture are obvious, but are in constant debate as those who disappeared seem so remarkably random, and not of one religion or belief system. The Leftovers, as the title indicates, is not the story of the event itself but of that time when life must go on, post-Sudden Departure. We join those left behind in a quaintly small town, as they try to pick up the pieces of society or encourage those very pieces to fall apart.

Those who want to move on from the event struggle in private ways, and those who think there is an insanity in seeking normal life after such a disastrous event gravitate towards one of the various fringe groups which develop in response to the Sudden Departure. Each cult seeks to put their own spin on the tragedy, often with destructive results.

There are quite a few negative reviews of the novel, which I found surprising. It was highly praised on its release in 2011, and has been sitting on my Amazon Wishlist for years. I found it be an ultimately jolting, but mostly beautifully meditative, examination of how we try to heal from things by claiming them as our own. We seek to possess tragedy in a way that ends up destroying us. As other reviewers note, there is a bit of shock at the ending, so if you invest in only positive endings in your reading then I’d suggest avoiding books about a post-Rapture world in general.

poster for leftovers showNow to what people really want to know–how does the novel compare with the show?

If you like the show, should you get the book? I think it depends on what you like about the show. Stylistically, the show presents post-Sudden Departure life as intriguing, while the novel goes for the tone of people living through just another day. I think this difference adds a level of mystery to the show which wasn’t sought in the book’s original tone.

What the book does have is Laurie’s thoughts, as she goes about her days at the Guilty Remnant. With much narration from Laurie’s perspective, the reader learns about the Guilty Remnant, Laurie’s motives, and the history of the Sudden Departure and her family. This would be impossible on the show, as Laurie has taken an oath of silence and a voice-over narrating her thoughts would be incredibly awkward.

If you’re curious to know more about both cults presented, the Guilty Remnant and Holy Wayne’s group, then the book has your answers. But if you are seeking some sort of greater-than-human explanation, prepare to be underwhelmed. The tone of the book is plain, the actions people take in the book are those of desperate, scared people, and none of it is dressed up by Liv Tyler’s beauty or haunting music (nothing against these two things–just don’t be disappointed in the book, when they aren’t there).

The book mainly focuses on the Garvey family, and there are many characters mentioned in passing in the novel which the show seems to have fully fleshed out. If we see more of this, the post-Sudden Departure storyline planted in the book could grow much larger in the series. I’m interested to see if the show will follow the book’s actual plot. If it does, due to the jarring ending I mentioned before, it seems like they may have quite a few unhappy viewers on their hands. For this reason, if you’re worried about spoilers, I’d recommend holding off on reading the novel until the series is finished or led so far astray the original storyline the spoiler risk seems minimal.

Tom Perotta is working on the series as a co-creator, writer, and executive producer, so he definitely could have started something in the book that he could finish in the series, exploring how society deals with an event that feels catastrophic, but maybe not catastrophic enough. When bad things happen, Perotta seems to be asking us, should the wheels keep turning? Or should they fall off?

 The Leftovers by Tom Perotta on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

The Leftovers on HBO, Sundays at 10PM

If you like The Leftovers, try reading:

 

HBO’s True Detective

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For the true mystery lover, there is only one thing that comes close to snuggling in with a well-written, carefully-plotted, page-turner of a mystery novel: the announcement of a well-written, carefully-crafted new mystery TV series on premium television. HBO’s “True Detective“, which premiered Sunday Jan. 12th to 2.3 million viewers, HBO’s largest audience for a premiere drama series in years, appears to be just that TV series.

The show stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as Louisiana State Police, chasing both a serial killer and their own demons across a staggered time frame. McConaughey’s character is odd enough to do a loop around the stereotypically troubled cop in TV shows as of late, and circle back around again to intriguing.

There are a few things that make “True Detective” unique to most hit TV shows. First, the entire first season, every script, was written by one man. Nic Pizzolatto created, wrote and executive produced every episode. Pizzolatto learned the ropes writing on (the American version of) “The Killing,” and now it is time for him to show the world what he can do on his own. Rather than have a team of writers with a single showrunner to steer them (as the traditional open-ended drama series process is usually written, according to the wonderful book Difficult Men), he wrote each script himself. I think this will be interesting to watch, as it may be an evolution of sorts in a way we think that medium must work. I imagine some people might work better solo, and maybe developing a television series with a single writer will create for a more specific vision than developing it with a team. Pizzolatto wrote one mystery novel, Galveston, published in 2011. Hopefully the popularity of the TV show will help create some more interest in the book, as it has good reviews (the Kindle edition is only $2.99 right now). I added it to my endless list of things to read next.

The second unique aspect of “True Detective” is that it is an anthology. I wasn’t even sure what this meant for a TV series specifically. I looked it up: each season the cast and storyline will be totally different. The message here is to not get too attached: McConaughey and Harrelson will be gone next season, and Pizzolatto told the New York Times the show might next set its scene in Los Angeles, acknowledging the rich noir history of that city.

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True Detective magazine, via

With a name like “True Detective”, an anthology series and homage to noir would make sense. True Detective was also a true crime (some would say pulp) magazine launched by bodybuilding and health enthusiast Bernarr McFadden in 1924. McFadden originally wanted to share his passion about health with the world, and he created Physical Culture magazine in 1899. Physical Culture received letters, and McFadden, like every successful businessman, capitalized on these personal tales. He created the magazine True Story: Truth is Stranger than Fiction in 1923, and a trend was created. From the wildly popular True Story, a confessional magazine, countless others were developed, including True Detective.

While True Detective was originally a true crime magazine, targeted towards those interested in investigating and attempting to solve murder mysteries at home, fiction also worked its way into the magazine: Dashiell Hammett, author of hard-boiled classic The Maltese Falcon, and Jim Thompson, considered a classic pulp author, both wrote for True Detective.

As much as we’ve fallen in love with the open-ended story arc, an anthology program certainly has its appeal as well. As with the original True Detective magazine, I wonder if the story surrounding one crime will become less important than the process of investigation surrounding all crimes–there is a sort of process here, and there are those who put that process into action all over the country, continuously. Examining an investigation for a season-long snapshot seems like it may be just as intriguing as examining a single case over several years, which never seems to be as satisfying as we all long for it to be.

Of course the best mystery shows tend to be character studies, investigating not only criminals but the struggles of those who spend their time chasing bad guys. If there is one thing that is most promising about “True Detective,” it is that Pizzolatto seems to fully realize and embrace this aspect of the crime drama. The show’s promo carries the tagline “Man is the cruelest animal,” and after watching the first few episodes it is unclear who the message is meant to refer to: the killer the police are chasing, or the police themselves.

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