Nora Durst finds herself at the intersection of something routinely normal for middle-class Americans living in the comfort of suburbia and distinctly otherworldly at the same time in Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, his 2011 novel venturing into speculative/ dystopian fiction.*
Visiting the mall with her sister during the Christmas season, Nora confronts the sudden disappearance of her entire family several years before on October 14, when millions of people also vanished in the Sudden Departure that prompts many to believe the world has finally experienced The Rapture:
Her heart was still racing when she stepped inside, her face hot with pride and embarrassment. She’d just forced herself to make a solo circuit of the big Christmas tree on the main level, where all the parents and kids were waiting to meet Santa Claus. It was another holiday challenge, an attempt to face her fear head-on, to break her shameful habit of avoiding the sight of small children whenever possible. That wasn’t the kind of person she wanted to be—shut down, defensive, giving a wide berth to anything that might remind her of what she’d lost. A similar logic had inspired her to apply for the day-care job last year, but that had been too much, too soon. This was more controlled, a one-time-only, bite-the-bullet sort of thing. (p. 193)
This moment for a fictional woman who has lost her family, has lost everything, is the essence of Perrotta’s mix of dark satire and moving authenticity about the human condition. But it also leads me to move beyond the book and consider what dystopian fiction, what speculative fiction offers readers that proves time and again to be so compelling.
Our Speculative World, “Off-to-the-Side”
Margaret Atwood has provided her readers four brilliant dystopian/speculative works of fiction—which she often uses to ague against simplistic labels such as “science fiction”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In “Writing Utopia” (from Writing with Intent), Atwood clarifies her distinction about genre, specifically about science fiction:
I define science fiction as fiction in which things happen that are not possible today—that depend, for instance, on advanced space travel, time travel, the discovery of green monsters on other planets or galaxies, or that contain various technologies we have not yet developed. But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. . . .So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia. (pp. 92-93)
Atwood has also turned to considering science fiction, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction more fully in her In Other Worlds, where she writes about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go:
Ishiguro likes to experiment with literary hybrids, and to hijack popular forms for his own ends, and to set his novels against tenebrous historical backdrops….An Ishiguro novel is never about what it pretends to pretend to be about, and Never Let Me Go is true to form. (p. 168)
And Perrotta’s dystopia can be described in much the same way; it isn’t “about what it pretends to pretend to be about”—which may be just that thing that makes the hard-to-explain genres of science fiction, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction so hard to explain.
“I Can’t Look at Everything Hard Enough”
I found reading the passage about Nora quoted above nearly as overwhelming as the experience appears to be for Nora herself. I began to think about my own daughter, Jessica.
Jessica, the three-year-old, is gone, disappeared, seemingly instantaneously, lost forever.
Jessica, the twelve-year-old, gone.
Jessica, the nineteen-year-old, gone.
My daughter is alive, now twenty-five, married, and expecting her first child, a daughter, but the scene with Nora in Perrotta’s world “off-to-the-side,” as Atwood describes Ishiguro’s dystopia in Never Let Me Go, is not about what might happen, not a speculative work about the possibility of The Rapture.
Perrotta is offering his readers a timeless message, one found in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As Perrotta explains about the relationship between Our Town and his novel:
This was part of the challenge of The Leftovers, as I wrote about characters left behind in the wake of the disappearances. The last moments of the disappeared people became supercharged with significance—even though that was not a special day, even though they disappeared while doing ordinary things. You might say the line from Our Town—“choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough”—helped inform these histories, because I looked to simple, everyday moments. Nora’s daughter spills some juice, so she goes into the kitchen for some paper towels—when her daughter disappears. Jill is in the room with an old friend of hers watching a YouTube video, and suddenly the friend is gone. So, cleaning a spill or watching a dumb video: It’s the through minutiae of everyday life these moments come alive.
In Wilder’s play, Emily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”
She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”
And this is the very real and starkly True center of Perrotta’s pervasive dark satire and insightful authenticity as a novelist staring at and then breathing life into the human condition, masked as fantastic events that are unimaginable, except for those who look at everything hard enough and pause to realize life every, every minute.
* Reposted from Daily Kos 20 October 2011, Whence Come “The Leftovers”?: Speculative Fiction and the Human Condition, slightly revised. See The Leftovers series adaptation from HBO.