If suddenly certain people, including ones you loved, just disappeared from the earth–gone without a trace or explanation–and you were left to continue on, what would you do? Would you spend the rest of your days searching for answers, trying to assign meaning to something that may not have any because it would help you cope to be able to say there was a purpose to the sudden loss? Would you become obsessed with the space that used to be occupied by these people? Would you be jealous of those who were gone, since they–ostensibly–didn’t have to attempt to make sense of the situation?
That’s the issue the characters in The Leftovers have to deal with, and those are the questions they’re forced to answer.
If I were the type to interpret novels into explanations involving symbolism and bigger picture questions, I’d say the book deals with a pretty simple metaphor for life in general.
Sure, maybe in real life, multiple people don’t disappear all at once. But they do come and go from an individual’s life.
The old friend who no longer keeps in touch. The ex who deletes you from his existence. The dog who runs away. The teacher who retires.
Of course many of these people (and animals–can’t forget the animals) aren’t gone, technically. They didn’t disappear from the universe. In theory, you could still come across them at some point, and you could still speak to them, or see their face, or catch a glimpse from afar. But in practice, they might as well have been mysteriously lifted from the earth.
And when they go, we’re left to figure out how we’re going to deal with the loss.
If I were the type to tell you what I think the overarching “meaning” of a piece of fiction is, I’d say this book reinforces the notion that most of us face at some point in our lives: life goes on. Even if we think, originally, that this friend has taken too much with her to ever get back; if we assume this ex has done too much damage to ever repair; if we imagine no other pet could take this dog’s place; if we guess we’ll never have another instructor as enlightening as this teacher–we’re probably wrong.
Obviously that’s a good thing, or else every heartbreak would be literal and nobody would have lasting friendships or happy marriages, etc., because the old scars would always be bursting open no matter how long it’s been since you thought they’d healed.
But it’s also a little uncomfortable to suggest the people and relationships that seem essential to one’s life are all replaceable. Maybe not in exactly the same way, maybe it’s a round peg shoving itself into a square hole instead of another square slipping easily in, but eventually, over time, there’s really no loss too large to not have most of its space filled in again.
It has to be that way in order for humanity to survive. I know this. And yet, sometimes I wonder whether we would be better off keeping some of the holes open–acknowledging there are people who irrevocably change us, and that’s okay, or even good. Maybe we don’t need to look for things to fill them up with. After all, there are other spaces for other people to fill. Maybe sometimes it’s not so much about getting over and moving on as it is about accepting that we may never do so–and realizing it’s all right to leave that hole gaping because no one else can fill it properly.
If I were the type to construct lessons learned from made-up stories, I’d say reading The Leftovers reminded me that everyone is a leftover from some sort of loss, and we’re all just trying to figure out how to live with that absence. So we should probably cut our fellow human beings some slack, because we’re doing the best we can.