3. Tom Perrotta’s Writerly Ethic

By Lorenza Starace

“Who do we, as writers, choose not to leave behind?

Who do writers write for? If you ask them, they often feel ambushed: what to say? Certainly not “myself”. “Everyone” might sound too ambitious, or, rather, not ambitious enough. Do they write for their own linguistic community, their national readers? In an age of “born-translated” novels, they’d better sound less provincial than that.1 A similar suspicion often plagues those writers whose books are systematically turned into successful movies, or tv shows. In these cases, the charge of inauthenticity has to do with the idea of “literature” itself: why write a novel, if what you are really doing is pitching a script?

The question came up in last week’s episode of Novel Dialogue. Prompted by a discussion of Joyce’s modernist disdain for mere readerly satisfaction, Mark Wollaeger asked Tom Perrotta about his own “sense of audience.” Citing his affinity for “accessible, plain language,” Perrotta replied that he always writes with his original reading community in mind, the working-class New Jersey neighborhood where he grew up. “I always had this sense that I wanted to write in a way that was accessible to the people I lived with,” Perrotta said. “I didn’t want to just leave them behind.”

There is a sense of loyalty, even an ethical commitment, in Perrotta’s words. The question of authenticity returns here, but Perotta re-frames it as an attempt to account for those we care for, and those we don’t want to lose. What happens, then, to the dreaded “who do you write for?” if we rephrase it as: who do we, as writers, choose not to leave behind?

Perrotta’s 2011 novel, The Leftovers, could be read as a kind of meditation on this question. Set in the fictional town of Mapleton, Ohio, The Leftovers follows the everyday lives of those who have survived a mysterious rapture, and are now stranded without a way of making sense of their loved ones’ “Sudden Departure.” On a literal level, the novel is a story of mourning and loss which unfolds in the broad daylight of a realist, suburban plot. But, as Aarthi Vadde noted in last week’s episode, The Leftovers is also a parable about meaning-making, the power of human creativity in the face of mystery.

Readers of the novel will remember the Guilty Remnant (GR), a cult of chain-smokers who have taken a vow of silence and withdrawn from Mapleton society. GR members have forsaken their former lives, abandoning their family and friends for the religious certainties of cult life. Unlike the ordinary people of Mapleton, who try to forge ahead with their uncertain lives, the GR dedicate all their energies to remembering those lost in the Sudden Departure. The most disturbing moments in The Leftovers emerge out of the conflict between the GR and the normal townspeople. That is, between those who want to escape the everyday world and those who accept that they remain “left behind” within it.

Not only are GR members the moral antagonists of The Leftovers, they also represent the opposite of Perrotta’s writerly ethic. The cult’s actions are directed towards a higher, more mysterious, kind of “audience.” In this, they align with the modernist ambition to go “beyond meaning” that Perrotta ascribed to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake in last week’s episode. Using their vows of silence, the GR forfeit their capacity to care for the people they left behind, disavowing their community altogether. Perrotta, like the ordinary residents of Mapleton, strives for a more durable solidarity with his audience. Such solidarity is no trivial matter: seen in the light of The Leftovers, “who do you write for?” becomes an ethical question.

1 Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in the Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

image credit: https://the-leftovers.fandom.com/wiki/Guilty_Remnant

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