What happens when The Rapture hits suburbia? What happens to those left behind when God appears to randomly harvest members of the human race? A mother here, a daughter there, a husband and both children there. Suddenly gone. Snap!
That is the subject of Tom Perrotta's book "The Leftovers."
It is three years after what is being called "the sudden departure," and Mapleton, an upper-middle-class small town in New Jersey, is trying to find its way back to normal. Meanwhile, a handful of cults materialize — some benign, some evil — as people awaken to the fact that they might not have much time left on Earth.
The author, in discussing the origins of this book, has said that he wanted to explore "the sense of someone just being there and then being gone," and that if you live long enough, there will be people in your life that you no longer see, either because they have died or you have lost touch.
"As you get older, you start to feel the absences around you take on the kind of importance that they didn't have earlier," Perrotta told Terry Gross of National Public Radio.
In another interview, Perrotta talked about how your life is defined as much by the people who are no longer here as it is by the people who are.
That is never more true, I think, than at the holidays. Like those who have lost a limb, we feel a phantom ache where a loved one used to be.
We grieve for them all over again. We catalog what events and milestones they have missed, the children and the grandchildren they never knew. We remember them almost too clearly.
Even if they are simply "away," at war or just living in another town, we feel their absence at the Christmas holiday more acutely than we might during, say, a Fourth of July weekend or even a birthday. The heavy doses of sentimentality and the emphasis on family at this time of year only make it worse for those of us left behind.
I have friends who have suffered the loss of a spouse or a child and who have taken off for the most un-Christmaslike destinations they can think of — Mexico or the islands — in what I am sure is a futile attempt to break the hold the holidays have on the heart.
The characters in Perrotta's suburbia are trying to cope with all kinds of loss after "the sudden departure."
Kevin Garvey's family was intact after the random harvest, but his son drops out of college to follow a charismatic man who calls himself "Holy Wayne," and who promises to absorb all of your pain by hugging you.
His wife joins a sinister cult and takes a vow of silence because nothing else makes sense to her. She can't find her way back to her soccer-mom life. His daughter, whose childhood friend disappeared while sitting next to her, falls off the rails at high school, while Kevin is elected mayor, running on the Hopeful Party ticket.
And to the reader, all the craziness makes perfect sense. Perrotta seems to be suggesting that there is no way back to normal after the loss of someone you love. That there is no more normal. There is only memory.
"The way to respect life and to hold onto an individual," said Perrotta, "is to remember them in their complexity."
The lesson for those of us left behind might be to not resist the vivid memories of loved ones that come unbidden during Christmas, washing over us when we least expect it. But to invite them into our hearts and minds, for a nice long visit.