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Book Review: Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers

The Leftovers

Jonathan May

I finished this novel recently, and my friend J—– informed me that it would be released this summer on HBO as a miniseries. My first question was How? But the more I think about it, my real question is Why?

The Leftovers takes as its main device the Biblical rapture, wherein the elect are called to Heaven, leaving those on Earth to repent or suffer. Within the first five pages, the religious aspect of the rapture has fallen to the wayside; just any people, regardless of character or religious affiliation, are taken. It seems God wasn’t so picky after all, if God is indeed to blame. The novel, pointedly it seems, lets blame rest on the self-conscious shoulders of the citizens of Mapleton, a Blue Velvet-esque town name if there ever was one. We focus mostly, in close third, on the newly elected mayor, an affable, forgettable character named Kevin Garvey. He tries to help his fellow citizens deal with the weirdness of it all, having lost none of his family in the “taking.” However, as people start to deal with the event by forming cultish groups, Kevin loses family along the way.

We’re in and out of his wife Laurie’s mind as well; she ultimately leaves him to join the Guilty Remnant, a chain-smoking silent group dedicated to asceticism, silence, and a mission. Smoking and in pairs, they rove the country, making sure no one forgets what has happened, and that the final reckoning is yet to come. The idea of silence is powerful within the novel; people literally vanished without a bang, without an inkling of anything. And so the silence must continue for some. Laurie as a character is very strong, but her intentions aren’t. Why does she join the group? Is it guilt, or something else? I feel like we never know.

This novel, like many of Perrotta’s others (Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher), dwells superbly within the contemporary suburban mind. He highlights deftly the quotidian and how necessary it is. But what the novel fails to do is provide us any sense of resolution; in fact, the way the novel ends (I won’t spoil it) actively works against resolution, forcing the reader to construct a possible ending. I found this cheap and flabby, as far as fiction goes. I would rather be pointed to a moral certainty about the work, even if it ends up being about amorality. Instead, we’re given some kind of Inception-like wishy-washy, choose-your-own-path scene that simply stops.

The writing is strongest when we’re bouncing around from character to character, and I wish there had been more of that. Since we settle on Kevin most often, his portions should have been the most arresting, but we’re given clichés like, “There was always that little secret between them, the memory of a summer night, the awareness of a road not taken.” I almost put the book down there, but my curiosity about what would happen to Laurie, the daughter Jill, and a certain unborn child who is introduced early on drove me to finish it.

I have no idea how this will translate to film; to build toward such a nothing of an ending seems like an incredible waste of time and money. But who knows? Maybe HBO will give some resolution where there was none.

You can listen to a sample from the audiobook of The Leftovers from Macmillan Audio here:

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image source: io9

Broad City: Season Review

broadcity

Jonathan May

I’m just going to come out and say it—Broad City is one of the funniest damn shows I’ve ever seen. It’s everything Girls fails to be and so, so much more. The jokes are uninhibited, surprising, and recurring. Cultural references abound. But the wacky, lovable, goofy best friendship Ilana and Abbi share makes up the core of this comedy set in Brooklyn. I’m comforted by a show that’s not afraid to portray every relationship as not being wrought with peril.

The comedy duo, Ilana and Abbi, have been doing this show on YouTube from 2009-2011. Amy Poehler saw them, and the rest is history. Luckily they’ve maintained most of the writing credits, as they are best able to draw out the nuances from their relationship and its quotidian nature. I discovered later that my favorite episode (“Working Girls”) wasn’t written by them, but in that episode, the two spend most of their time apart. Curious.

This isn’t a show that’s trying to be smart, and thank God. The show tries to be, and amply succeeds in being, hilarious—a much higher virtue for television. There are many references to this being the Golden Age of television, as if we were all being written about by Hesiod. The seriousness with which people approach this idea extends into most shows themselves, making them bland and self-important, as if we are supposed to find reflections from life or higher meanings; it’s also the result of presentist thought reigning in the current cultural dialectic, a presumptuous and vain attitude. Broad City is a great reminder that television can simply be for entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you don’t like jokes about weed or vaginas or bodily functions, this is, in fact, probably not the show for you. But if you have a sense of humor, you should definitely binge-watch the first season (10 episodes). The secondary characters are brilliantly rendered; the cameos are few, but incredibly well-chosen (Rachel Dratch and Janeane Garofalo to name a few). And to those happy fans, rejoice!—a second season is in the works. I know I’ll be watching.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image source: Comedy Central

Hate-Watching the Girls Season Finale

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Jonathan May

Jonathan May’s original explanation and defense of hate-watching Girls can be found here. This post covers only the season finale, which aired on Sunday.

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this post erroneously identified this in one instance as the series finale of Girls. It is actually the season finale. We apologize for the wishful thinking.] 

What can I say? All’s well that ends well, and end well this doesn’t. (Pro tip: Never make a Girls/Shakespeare comparison). I spent most of this disaster of an episode hating Marnie for hurting Shoshanna; I do admit that if Shoshanna hadn’t pushed Ray away, it might not have happened at all, but such is the wanton heart. I find myself thinking about the show purely in terms of the romantic engagements, which hearkens back to my theory that the show is in no way (and under no uncertain terms) a comedy, but rather a romance. But for a show all about girls, there is certainly a lot of attachment to boys.

This episode attempts to wrap up a season’s worth of false starts and prolonged miseries. Adam’s sister reappears, and tada!—she’s living with Laird, with whom she’s expecting a child. Then she promptly disappears from the plot. (Situation: resolved?) Marnie, no shocker, feels it necessary to reveal to Shoshanna that she and Ray slept together.Why she feels it necessary is beyond me. In a Western world of privilege, Marnie feels it’s her duty to unburden herself of guilt, rather than keep silent. She does this not for Shoshanna, but for herself, using the guise of truth as a way to assuage her own loneliness by bringing Shoshanna into co-misery. So, my real shocker for this episode was hating Marnie more than Hannah.

Which brings us to Hannah, unavoidably so. Her acceptance to Iowa was a trite and tawdry move on the part of the plot; Hannah lives in a world of limitless opportunity as a writer, even though we never see her writing. Comparisons to Sex and the City noted, Carrie’s main grace as the central protagonist was that the narration began and normally ended with her writing, her articles, because she was a writer. We never see any articulation or actualization of Hannah’s writing, just its end results. Where are the hard hours alone? The time spent putting together an application for a tough-to-get-into program like Iowa? We see none of that, and we’re the worse for it. Missing those moments cheapens the idea of work behind creative writing. We see Adam practicing constantly, Ray reading, Marnie singing, but we never see Hannah writing.

All in all, the episode closes with dramatic flourish typical of an inflated season of histrionics, with Hannah clutching her torn acceptance to Iowa like a sad, frumpy Vivien Leigh. Jessa’s arc throughout the season was the most interesting, and her courage in helping the photographer to end her life (and then save it) was the strongest point of the episode. Jessa makes it clear that at least some of the Girls aren’t just living for themselves.

My predictions for next season: We open in media res after something (?) happens to Hannah at Iowa, forcing a return to Brooklyn. Jessa has finally found herself. Adam is wildly successful. Marnie does something better with her hair. Shoshanna leaves the drama behind.

Jonathan May watches too much television, but he’s just playing catch-up from a childhood spent in Zimbabwe. You can read his poetry at owenmay.com, follow him on Twitter at @jonowenmay, or email him at owen.may@gmail.com.

Image source: Grantland

On Hate-Watching Girls

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Jonathan May

I must admit that I love to hate-watch shows. I don’t apologize for it. Many people love to hate things all of the time: other people, their Facebook pages, movies everyone loves, Republicans. So I claim Girls as my love-to-hate show. Besides the obviousness of it, that these are girls you are supposed to not-like, the show offers little in terms of episode-to-episode flow, the most appalling examples of which fall in the most recent and unfolding season (Adam’s sister, anyone?). For the first two seasons, I also held the show to be a comedy, which it fails at disastrously. The only funny moments involve Shoshanna, a character rendered tangential by her lack of “worldliness”—a quality which Lena Dunham and her ilk hold highest.

The problem with this is that these girls, apart from Jessa (sometimes), live out their petty dramas in the TV-bubble of New York City. Unlike Sex and the City, however, this works against the girls, casting them as Jenny-come-lately poseurs in a city that Carrie and crew embraced full and well years ago. This is more than just a problem of looking at two groups of women in completely different points in their lives/careers; as a result of hipster influx into Brooklyn (among myriad other U.S. locales), these girls don’t even recognize their status as interlopers, which is the root cause of their unhappiness. Marnie spends a lot of time alone; she has no friends because she has chosen to move to a city where sacrifice could mean something greater, but often doesn’t. Hannah never escapes her insular world made up of Adam and the occasional friend and the writing she is literally never doing. Each of the Girls revolves in a world populated by just a few.

Now, back to the hate-watching. I hate-watch Girls not only because I can and am free to, but also because I hate-read a few hundred romance novels when I worked at a used bookstore over the course of nine years. Girls’ formula is unfortunately so formulaic as to be laughable; it follows the exact arc of most good romances, which is lucky because the show fails as a drama and a comedy. So, why is everyone, myself included, obsessed with this new brand of romance? What does it offer? Well, I hate-but-don’t-hate to burst your bubble, but the show offers nothing besides pure romantic entertainment. There are no higher messages or coded morals; there are no expressions of the Zeitgeist or proclamations of culture. We have ripped tank tops and party dresses; we have unanswered texts. What we have is romance, and all proper romances end in marriage. So I guess we’ll see if Girls fails in that regard as well.

Image source: Grantland