When reading The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, I found myself haunted by the notion of those around me disappearing in a split second. Even once I’d accepted the ‘Sudden Departure’, the sense of unease it had provoked rooted itself in my mind. With loved ones disappearing into the unknown and those left behind in turmoil, the severed contact between the lost and the leftover is deeply unnerving. The poignancy of this, however, resonated with me, as it would with many modern readers, who recognise that the disassociation between loved ones is not unique to Perrotta’s fiction.
The battle of everyday life in Mapleton revolves around disconnection, an existing trait of society as we know it today. In the citizens of Mapleton we see ourselves; living in communities and sharing resources – water, land and most importantly – the internet. Yet, despite our communal way of living, we are as isolated from each other as the Mapleton residents, who are struggling to connect in the wake of disaster. Consider the daily commute (or any observation of the public, for that matter); Though seemingly unrelated to Perrotta’s narrative, when I travel on the rush hour train and periodically looked up from my own mobile phone, I noticed every other passenger under the age of forty was doing just the same – locked into the eternally updating social media feeds, urgent e-mails, continuous text messages, whatsapps and bbms, frantically tapping at touchscreen keyboards. With each of us utterly consumed by the omnipresent internet, we have little concentration left to bother communicating with anyone else. Yes, these devices are miraculous, but so is human interaction. Everyone was absent – as I was – sitting on a train, yet trapped in the grand web of electronic communication; as absent as the victims of October 14th in The Leftovers, leaving those behind in a state of isolation.
The result – the dysfunctional reality of the Garvey family: a mother who leaves the family in commitment to another cause, and a son who cannot face the reality of his loss or confront his family in light of this. This leaves father, Kevin and daughter, Jill: the dregs of the ‘Sudden Departure’, who have abandoned all attempts at rekindling any kind of family connection and are left unable to communicate in anything more than a dysfunctional dialogue. Whilst the Garveys’ troubles stem from catastrophe, they are not so different from those faced by the contemporary nuclear family – people becoming increasingly more introvert in personal relationships. Instead of depending on each other for support, for instance, Kevin and Jill become further estranged. Like many young people who are lost without their smartphone, tablet or laptop, Jill decides “there was no point going into detail” when talking to her father. Jill captures how we come to see verbal expression as nothing more than exertion – which becomes ever more obsolete in the face of electronic communication. When so accustomed to the ease of doing so electronically, why converse manually? Like Jill, the effort can simply be too much, distorting the very core of our relationships by hindering the ability to communicate.
Without the raw communication skills, the online experience infiltrates our relationships, whilst consuming the population and dictating cultural trends, bringing into question the nature of our own autonomy. Like the victims of the ‘Sudden Departure’, who were sporadically plucked from existence in Mapleton, do we lose some sense of control when committing ourselves to our online profiles – the online person we model ourselves on? We cannot know how our online presence is perceived, nor can we quantify the audience it reaches. We respond according to likes, favourites, retweets and shares, rather than updating people via actual conversation. To a certain extent, we are governed by how we project ourselves online. Whilst rumours of the Rapture and the Holy Wayne are just two of a multitude of ideas justifying the Sudden Departure, the victims had no power over the rampant minds of religious fanatics or obsessive proclaimers and nor do we of the few, many or millions who view our profiles. The missing have been forced to relinquish all control over how they purport themselves, as “none of whom were in any kind of position to defend themselves”. Nora acknowledges this, but even after the disappearance, there are endless justifications, memorials and dedications which maintain an idea of the person(s) without their presence or even existence being known.
Just like the missing, even after death we are now able to stay ‘alive’ through a digital presence. A recent Guardian article discusses the new Twitter App Lives On, which continues to update our online profiles by analysing our online behaviour prior to death, and continuing suitably afterwards. As twisted as this may be, it is an indication of the limited jurisdiction we hold over our own lives in this digital age. This is in some ways reminiscent of Reverend Jamieson, whose year anniversary newsletter of the Sudden Departure makes nothing but “scurrilous accusations against the missing”. He, like many leftovers, makes allegations, speculations and declarations about the missing, updating their non-existent profiles after the disappearance. It seems it is no longer important to leave a lasting impression on those you have interacted with throughout your life, but the imprint you leave is continuously maintained online regardless of who you have affected by living.
Through exploring personal relationships, a community’s loss and the emotional aftermath of disaster, Perrotta highlights the turbulent nature of everyday life and the issues troubling contemporary society. In an age when we are considered to feel most empowered in this civilised world, surrounded by new and astounding technologies, the Garvey family demonstrate the drawbacks of this and reveal how we are constantly facing threats to our autonomy. The missing and the leftover help to identify the shortcomings of living in a constantly developing digital world, which threatens to overtake eternal aspects of human life: emotion, love and connection. Perrotta’s literary leftovers speak of the literal leftovers in society: those who recognise that channelling a large portion of our energy into the virtual versions of ourselves leaves us with little energy to behave like our actual selves.
Words by Jessica Panton
The Leftovers is shown on Sky Atlantic and Sky Atlantic HD on Tuesdays at 9pm
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