The Short Version: On October 14th, people disappeared. It wasn’t The Rapture – the disappeared included all religions and creeds and moral standings – but that’s the best way to describe it. In the aftermath, humanity tries to collectively rebuild. Some take a vow of silence or join a cult/movement, while others simply try to get on with the way things used to be. Humanity, even in the face of the strange and unknowable and terrible, will always find a way to survive.
The Review: Stephen King is quoted on the front cover in a blurb saying this is the best Twilight Zone episode you’ve never seen. I’m with him, up to a point. It’s a terrific concept: what if people disappeared? What if it was truly random – not ordained by this God or that one but it simply happened… and there was no explanation forthcoming? ”If God didn’t exist, we would have to invent him,” as the wise man once said and (not to get into a socio-political-religious debate) I personally believe that’s exactly what humanity did all those eons ago. How to explain the inexplicable? The existentialists say roll with it; everyone else (exaggerating for effect) attributes it somehow to forces outside our control, because that’s a far easier concept to grapple with.
But what happens when the carefully constructed rationales fall apart?
That’s what this book should explore and it does so, for the most part. But in its quiet intensity, it misses something. A lack of resolution was inevitable, I suppose – no explanation for the event could ever be truly satisfying, not in the context of the novel. But there’s never a resolve. The novel just sort of ends, and while it’s a satisfactory ending in terms of giving relative resolution to the various plots… there’s no sense of an ending. More a fade out. And perhaps it was the unrealistic expectation of this being a Twilight Zone episode, but I expected more clarity at the end than I got. Again, I didn’t need an explanation for the disappearances – but I wouldn’t've minded something like an answer to what, exactly, the Guilty Remnant was up to.
I don’t want to go into spoilers, as a) the book is fresh enough in paperback and b) my BookClub does read this blog now and then and it’s not to be discussed for another two or three weeks. But the more I think about it, the more I am frustrated by the end of Laurie and Tom’s plots. Kevin’s plot is probably the most predictable, especially for Perrotta – I’ve never read any of his other novels, but I’ve seen the films of Election and Little Children and the man certainly knows how to do suburban ennui/angst/dread. So Kevin, as mayor, dealing with his wife leaving and son disappearing and daughter drifting, all the while dealing with his own sexual urges… yeah, that’s a plot that he can do well and he does it well. It takes up the lion’s share of the novel and is the most fully realized.
So as a result, the other segments feel a bit undercooked. Laurie’s time with the G.R. fits because its still in the same town and they’re creepy and always around and it presents a naturally interesting dynamic. But Tom’s plot, with the other cult – also, side note: I’m sure that such a wild event would lead to lots of crazy cults, but for two to get so large so quickly but have zip to do with each other… dunno, something was off about that – involving the pedophile hugs guy and the baby, was such a waste of time. It provides one thing to the story: the catalyst at the end for the hope, the glimmer, of a happy ending.
And I do believe the ending is happy. Things are not back to normal but suddenly you see that maybe, even if it takes literally years, things will balance out and get back to an even keel. But you could’ve accomplished that resolution without the baby. I’m also a bit bothered by the fact that we find out less than 100 pages from the end (although it was a bit predictable) that the G.R. is wayyyyy wackier than expected and there’s no explanation for why. It suddenly exists as a thing and it’s like “wait, seriously?” because it hints at so much more than this suburban novel dealt with. Actually, wait, that’s exactly why I didn’t like Tom’s subplot: the entire rest of the novel is about this town, set in this town, and Tom is meanwhile off crossing the country. I understand that the attempt was to make the novel about a family but I’m sorry, that just didn’t work. It made things too big and too unwieldy. The reason that Signs worked so effectively as a film (issues with the last 20 minutes aside) is that it focused on a microcosm as opposed to being a big alien invasion blockbuster – this novel, when it’s focusing on one relatively normal town’s reaction to the event, does the same thing. We don’t need to see the whole country, the whole world: it’s actually more interesting to watch a small subset work through the crisis, even as we hear snatches of words about the rest of the world’s stories.
All of this aside, it’s a heartfelt book. The way Perrotta deals with family, with love, with loss, with grief… it’s remarkable. Powerful, even. And he’s funny as hell, too. Things like the G.R. being forced to smoke are satirical funny but he also just brings the straight funny. A line about Food Network making it clear that the “world of superstar chefs was hit especially hard” by the Rapture (or whatever) had me burst out on the train the other morning. It’s that sort of funny, even as he brings home the deep emotional stuff too.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. It’s a very good book – but it isn’t a great one. It just feels too… unfinished, perhaps? Although the stories are finished well enough – the ending does serve to, well, end things – it just doesn’t have that sense of being finished. There are too many loose ends that feel unintentionally left open, like an entire set of pages was left on the printer’s floor. Still, what is here is pretty terrific.