I tried very hard to celebrate the off-screen moments in Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, but I had to accept that I was trying to celebrate a mistake. No matter how lovely my sentences were regarding the thematic relevance of the off-screen moments, nor how thorough my charts about their content and placement, at the end of the day, this article did not come together, and it took me awhile to accept that it was because the off-screen moments weren’t thematically significant. They were a slip-up.
I cannot speak to Perrotta’s intentions in writing The Leftovers, and I’d like to congratulate him on writing a successful book right off the bat so we can get that out of the way. Unfortunately, I cannot congratulate him on writing a unique book, which is where the problems start.
The Leftovers is considered a unique book. In it, a huge percentage of the world’s population suddenly disappears, and that sounds interesting. But it’s not. The Leftovers isn’t about the Sudden Departure, the never explained rapture-like event that causes millions of people to disappear. Perrotta barely glances at the global or economic ramifications such an event would have—the lack of people to run the stores, for example, or to keep the schools open, or to maintain most of the actives of daily life. Instead, Perrotta focuses on the (really, really) mundane life of a newly divorced father, his teenage daughter, his just-joined-a-cult son, and his budding romance with brand new widow, Nora. (To be fair, by the time the book starts, Tom, Kevin’s son, has basically un-brainwashed himself, and the cult leader is behind bars, so even that interesting story is squashed by banality).
The conceit of The Leftovers is to get a lot of really sad, grieving, and confused people in one book and see what happens. Honestly, I think it could be a really great story and might offer an interesting lens through which to view the more difficult aspects of and actions after natural disasters (or terrorist attacks or mass murders, or any event where a lot of people die tragically). There’s a great amount of dramatic tension when people are coping with the unimaginable and disagreeing about the proper way to grieve and what the government should be doing. By using a literary event (re: totally fake) like the Sudden Departure, Perrotta isn’t under any obligation to be courteous or compassionate to the real people who have suffered from a similar event. Unfortunately, Perrotta doesn’t do this. Perrotta uses The Leftovers to get a lot of really sad people to be mostly sad together, and then help each other be sort of happy. He tells the same suburban-style story you could read elsewhere on the bookshelf, or more likely have already experienced if you live in suburbia.
My original plan was to examine Perrotta’s use of off-screen moments (any time relevant action happens off the page, so it’s implied or summarized) to leave the reader with the same uneasy, slipping-away feeling the characters have after the Sudden Departure. But as I delved deeper into the text, looking for examples of well-executed off-screen moments juxtaposed with on-screen moments, I found myself at a loss. There wasn’t any rhythm or rhyme to the off-screen moments vs. the on-screen ones. The use of off-screen moments was one of Perrotta’s main techniques in the story.
Let’s look at Meg’s death. For argument’s sake, let’s agree that Meg’s death happens startlingly on the page:
” ‘I love you, too,’ Meg said, but there was an odd flatness in her voice, as if her soul had already left her body, as if it hadn’t bothered to wait for the deafening explosion a moment later, and that imaginary flash of golden light.”
At first, I thought—How visceral to have such a shocking death right there on the page in a book where so many characters disappear without any descriptive paragraphs. What a great juxtaposition.
But there were problems with that. Similar disappearances or deaths were given the same emotional weight, or moments that I felt should have the same emotional weight were given the shaft.
Take the moment when Christine abandons Tom and her baby in the parking lot. We’re given the moments leading up to that moment and then we cut to Tom driving away, thinking about how he and the baby were abandoned. We don’t experience the abandonment itself. Christine is equal to Meg in the story—both of them are characters who the main characters would not have met and formed emotional bonds with were it not for the Sudden Departure. Yet Tom’s abandonment isn’t treated with the same visceral shock as Meg’s death.
This inconsistency carries throughout the novel. Nora abandons Kevin during a Valentine’s dinner date, yet we never see the inevitable confrontation or fallout from that moment. However, when Jill decides she’s done with her slacker summer friends, she’s afforded an entire good-bye paragraph. Even the beauty of the Sudden Departure’s solely off-screen presence is sabotaged when Nora recounts, in detail and in scene, the moment when her family disappears. (It should be noted that Perrotta uses flashback throughout, but, except for this moment, the moments told in flashback are never given the weight of the moments he tells as they’re happening. Notably: Tom leaves the baby on Kevin’s doorstep, but we don’t get that exact moment. We’re treated to the seconds leading up to it and Tom’s thoughts while driving away, but the moment he leaves the baby is flashback and emotionally diluted as a result.)
There is no rationale for Perrotta’s on and off-screen policy. Despite numerous charts and excel sheets (okay, maybe not excel sheets), I was unable to find a unifying theme steering them. Ultimately, I was forced to admit that there was no ‘use’ of off-screen moments at all. I don’t know how to say this, especially to one as successful and highly regarded as Perrotta (I saw him read at AWP in 2013 and really liked him, this was what prompted me to read The Leftovers at all), but this seems to be inept writing from someone who’s incredibly successful and well respected. Was Perrotta rushing to complete a novel, omitting many interesting and complex scenes, or was there a better reason for him to employ this technique?