Post-apocalyptic stories have always been popular, but lately, like with the zombie subgenre (see, e.g., Warm Bodies) writers have been coming up with new and interesting twists that make those stories all the more fascinating and resonant. Drew Magary’s The Postmortal, for instance, is one of my favorite novels in the past few years: Here’s a situation where an apocalypse is triggered by the fact that everyone can theoretically live forever, and if everyone lives forever, well, the Earth’s limited resources are going to run out fast. The catch in Magary’s book is that, though you can avoid cancer, illnesses, and other natural causes that kill you — you can still die from murder, being hit by a bus, etc., and with the ante so high — you’re not losing a 75 year life, you’re losing potentially perpetual life — the conflict is all the more compelling. There are a lot of competing interests in that scenario.
Tom Perotta — the guy behind Election and Little Children — is another one of my favorite authors, and he has another twist on the post-apocalyptic story in his book, The Leftovers, which is being adapted by Damon Lindelof for HBO. It’s an absolutely fascinating twist, and rather than explain it to you myself, here’s Damon Lindelof’s description of the book from a brilliant Grantland interview this week.
The Rapture happens. That’s the premise of the book. Like, 2 percent of the world’s population disappears in an instant, and they don’t like, float up. Their clothes aren’t left behind. They’re just gone. You go, “Two percent of the world’s population? That’s not a lot.” But it’s 170 million people, and if you think about big things that have happened — like 9/11, which changed the world forever: [almost 3,000] people died. One hundred seventy million people disappearing is a pretty big deal.
But it’s not the Apocalypse. There aren’t zombies walking around, and it’s not a postnuclear wasteland, so essentially, tomorrow morning, you’ve still got to wake up and go to work and pay your taxes and put food on your table. And so the book starts three years after this thing that they call the Sudden Departure; religious people believe it was the Rapture, but the world at large refers to it as the Sudden Departure, because the people who disappeared —- there doesn’t seem to be any selection process. The Pope disappears, but also Gary Busey disappears. So it’s sort of like, in the Venn diagram of Pope and Busey, what are the intersections?
… So there are people who are obsessed, for obvious and personal reasons, with discovering —- what was the selection process? Was it just good people? And that’s what people graft on to it, obviously: “These people had something that I don’t have.” That’s why the book is called The Leftovers. The world is left to look in the mirror and say, “Am I good? And what does good even mean anymore? Because I thought I was good, and my neighbor down the street, who is a real sh*thead — well, he’s gone. Should I just throw my Bible out the window?” But the whole show takes place in this one town in New Jersey, and it’s about this family, and so it’s like this John Cheever novel with a supernatural air about it.
Obviously, a story like that has immense potential for a television series, because there’s never a shortage of stories to tell about the billions of people left behind when 2 percent of the population suddenly up and disappears. But here’s why it’s perfect for Damon Lindelof. See, Lindelof — as I’ve written before — is obsessed with the unanswerable questions of faith, religion, spirituality, and the supernatural, but the problem with stories like that arrives when you try to explain the unexplainable. Two percent of the population disappears? While a premise like that is open for hundreds of theories and hours of speculation, there’s not a single answer in the world to that mystery that would satisfy everyone. Or even most people. Or even three people. As soon as you start trying to answer a huge question like that, which is wrapped in faith and spirituality and sci-fi — you get something like the final episode of Lost.
But here’s the beauty of Tom Perrotta’s book: There is no answer.
The book — going back to what launched this rant — basically says, “If you are reading this book to find out where those people went, why them, or if they’re coming back, that is not going to happen by the end of this book.” It’s just about the state of living in this world. It’s called The Leftovers, and it’s about these people trying to move on. It’s not quite grief, because these people aren’t dead; there’s nothing to bury. It’s just a very interesting world to be in, and that’s all the novel wants to be. But as soon as you make it a TV show, the polar bear of this show is: “Where’d they go? Are they coming back? Lindelof, are you just going to jerk me off for, like, another six years?’” To which I would say: That sounds like heaven to me! Getting jerked for six years? I mean, you know, sounds pretty good!
That’s the key, here: If Lindelof sticks to the book’s premise, if he doesn’t try to tackle the polar bear, and if we know that at the outset, nothing could be better suited to Lindelof: He can ask questions for seven seasons and he’d be under absolutely no obligation to provide an answer. There is no one answer; people from different religions, different intelligent levels, and different backgrounds would arrive at their own interpretations. Nobody on television poses questions and creates mysteries better than Lindelof; it’s when he tries to provide answers to mysteries that are larger than he is, or we are, that he comes up empty (see also Prometheus). Here, however, we could provide our own theories on a weekly basis. It’s a show we could talk about, that we could devote millions of words to in comment threads around the Internet, and we could do so without being concerned that Lindelof would ultimately disappoint us. It is perfect.
You should also read the entire, lengthy interview with Lindelof over on Grantland, where he also talks Star Trek Star Wars, and his unhealthy obsession with Twitter. It is not possible to come away from that interview without a strong affection and admiration for Lindelof, regardless of what you think of Lost.