Tom Perrotta's work explores much the same territory as John Updike (though less rhapsodically and lyrically), the suburban world that many of us often mistake for a post-apocalyptic nightmare: possessions as expressions of the self; imploding and exploding nuclear families; secrets along every nostalgia-lined street; the meaninglessness of it all. It's familiar territory for Perrotta, but it must also have seemed like a fitting location to study the aftermath of an actual near-world-death event in The Leftovers.
One day, right around now, millions of people vanish (Perrotta doesn't give us a figure or even a percentage, but it seems to mirror the losses in the Soviet Union from WWII—if it wasn't your family, it was still several people you knew). Is it the Rapture, awaited in all its literalness by evangelical Christians? It meets one criterion, that of people simply popping out of existence, but the selection process throws any religious interpretation into question. So people are left with an unexplained decimation of their families and communities. What do they do now?
In interwoven narrative arcs, Perrotta traces the lives of about a dozen suburban citizens, showing how they cope and fail to cope (simultaneously, really), unpacking the choices they make about the shapes of their lives. All of this reconstruction—or deconstruction, or just plain destruction—revolves around the notion of family and relationships. People need desperately to connect with one another, but none of the standard patterns seem to work (if they ever did; one has to assume that that's part of Perrotta's intent, a critique of modern life). New sects and activities develop in response to the Sudden Departure, but other behaviors, such as applying to college and summer softball leagues, continue on as if their context hasn't changed.
The flip side of this scrambling to bond is a sense of guilt: each character has his or her own burden of guilt, but perhaps more important is the guilt imposed from outside, either by the watchful eyes of those who knew us before the big event or the watchful eyes of the quasi-religious sect that, in pairs, follows people about, endlessly smoking cigarettes in a quaint and gradual embrace of mortality.
The book is a breeze to read, providing interesting characters and situations but writing that's merely efficient. It's reflective, but never dense; literate, but not literary. Do we still use—with respect—the term "middlebrow fiction"? This is it, though I think even middlebrow work usually provides a passage that brings you up short, which this doesn't. The book is smart but the narration has a light touch, and most characters sound like the same person. There's plenty of humor, and never at the expense of the characters. It's something of a Stephen King novel, an Under the Dome that has no intention, once its one fantastic event has taken place, of returning to the world of fantasy, but instead leaves us trapped in the strangeness of suburbia, a place in which people may not experience rapture, but still experience human connection.