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Tom Perrotta’s ‘The Leftovers’ imagined 2% of the population disappearing – that could be our reality

Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” imagined 2% of the population disappearing – that could be our reality. (Ben E. King / HBO)
Tom Perrotta’s “The Leftovers” imagined 2% of the population disappearing – that could be our reality. (Ben E. King / HBO)
By Ron Charles Washington Post

Like some Beltway Dr. Faust, President Donald Trump probably imagines he’s making a deal with Death: “Give me a revived economy before the election,” he thinks. “And I’ll hand over a sliver of the U.S. population.” Macabre as that equation is, it can be calculated with some degree of predictability based on economic data and epidemiological trends.

But Death is just the frontman in these negotiations over how soon we should stop sheltering in place to slow the novel coronavirus. The real player here is Grief. And it’s not a fair or predictable opponent. The president’s plan to get the United States “raring to go by Easter,” as he said, risks unleashing a wave of sorrow. We could wake up this spring and discover that it’s mourning again in America.

Ironically, dozens of apocalyptic novels may have misled us about what lies ahead. Stories like Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” have infected our collective consciousness with fevered excesses of one kind or another. For instance, Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven” imagines that a flu kills off 99% of the world’s population. In Justin Cronin’s terrifying vampire novel “The Passage,” only a tiny fraction of humanity survives a government-created virus.

But in real life, death rates from the coronavirus pandemic are not predicted to approach anything near such fictional decimation. And given those end of days visions, Trump’s dismissive attitude about the coronavirus seems, comparatively, reasonable, almost comforting. Republicans are beginning to argue, correctly, that we’ll lose “only” a percent or two. And as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently suggested, the coronavirus victims will be mostly older people anyhow.

It’s as though these literary nightmares of complete annihilation have softened us up to accept the possibility of “just” a few million deaths. About 10 years ago, in the wake of 9/11, the novelist Tom Perrotta imagined an apocalypse that is strangely close to what the president is proposing.

“The Leftovers” is the flip side of the usual apocalyptic novel. It begins three years after 2% of the world population has vanished. The remaining 98% are untouched and physically healthy – but not “raring to go by Easter.” Or by New Year’s. Or even the year after that.

Speaking from his home outside Boston, Perrotta says he was startled by some people’s scornful response to the premise of “The Leftovers.” “Two percent?” they said. “That’s nothing.” But that would be 6.5 million Americans, and it could soon be this administration’s economic plan for the United States.

The horror of contemplating a loss of that magnitude is staggering. “I look out my window, and it’s a beautiful day, and the water comes out of the faucet when I turn it on, and my car works,” Perrotta says. “The infrastructure of the world is intact, but there is this feeling of dread and grief that makes it feel entirely different than what it did a month ago. I wake up and as soon as I go downstairs and come in contact with any information, this heaviness just comes over me that I carry through the whole day. And I think, you know, 2% is a lot.”

As he suggested in “The Leftovers,” which was later adapted into an HBO series, Perrotta doubts anybody would survive such a “minor” apocalypse unscathed. “It may not be somebody in your first ring of acquaintances,” he says, “but it’ll be someone in the second and maybe someone right next to you. One of the things it does is really make you aware of just how connected we are.”

The tenacity of mourning is something Perrotta learned from his characters in “The Leftovers.” “Even years after the events,” he says, “they were trying to figure out how to process this grief. And I think there is a kind of collective grief that is awaiting us. Right now, we’re just in the dread phase. But the grief part is a little bit down the road.”

Trump continues to imagine that he can inure the country to the unknown effects of the coronavirus through a series of misleading comparisons. “We lose thousands and thousands of people to the flu. We don’t turn the country off,” he said. “We lose much more than that to automobile accidents.” But the sudden loss of several million Americans would be nothing like those common killers.

In “The Leftovers” the survivors’ unstaunched sadness gives rise to a host of psychological disorders and a disruptive cult called “the Guilty Remnant.” Perrotta notes that the United States lost far fewer citizens in the Vietnam War, but “the whole country was shaken to its core” by that cataclysm of bereavement and rage. Likewise, the long period of lamentation after the Civil War gave rise to a surge of spiritualism that ran counter to the country’s quickly evolving knowledge of science and medicine.

“When there is a big upheaval like this,” Perrotta says, “there will be years of enormous, unpredictable social reaction.” Rationalizing the deaths of millions of Americans is obscene. But imagining that the survivors’ anguish can be written off as a cost of doing business is pure folly.

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