Margaret Atwood has provided her readers four brilliant dystopian/speculative works of fiction—which she often uses to ague against simplistic labels such as “science fiction”: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam. In “Writing Utopia” (from Writing with Intent), Atwood clarifies her distinction about genre, specifically about science fiction:
I define science fiction as fiction in which things happen that are not possible today—that depend, for instance, on advanced space travel, time travel, the discovery of green monsters on other planets or galaxies, or that contain various technologies we have not yet developed. But in The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing happens that the human race has not already done at some time in the past, or that it is not doing now, perhaps in other countries, or for which it has not yet developed the technology. We’ve done it, we’re doing it, or we could start doing it tomorrow. . . .So I think of The Handmaid’s Tale not as science fiction but as speculative fiction; and, more particularly, as that negative form of Utopian fiction that has come to be known as the Dystopia. (pp. 92-93)
Ishiguro likes to experiment with literary hybrids, and to hijack popular forms for his own ends, and to set his novels against tenebrous historical backdrops….An Ishiguro novel is never about what it pretends to pretend to be about, and Never Let Me Go is true to form. (p. 168)
And Perrotta’s dystopia can be described in much the same way; it isn’t “about what it pretends to pretend to be about”—which may be just that thing that makes the hard-to-explain genres of science fiction, speculative fiction, and dystopian fiction so hard to explain.
“I Can’t Look at Everything Hard Enough”
I found reading the passage about Nora quoted above nearly as overwhelming as the experience appears to be for Nora herself. I began to think about my own daughter, Jessica.
Jessica, the three-year-old, is gone, disappeared, seemingly instantaneously, lost forever.
Jessica, the twelve-year-old, gone.
Jessica, the nineteen-year-old, gone.
My daughter is alive, now twenty-five, married, and expecting her first child, a daughter, but the scene with Nora in Perrotta’s world “off-to-the-side,” as Atwood describes Ishiguro’s dystopia in Never Let Me Go, is not about what might happen, not a speculative work about the possibility of The Rapture.
Perrotta is offering his readers a timeless message, one found in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. As Perrotta explains about the relationship between Our Town and his novel:
This was part of the challenge of The Leftovers, as I wrote about characters left behind in the wake of the disappearances. The last moments of the disappeared people became supercharged with significance—even though that was not a special day, even though they disappeared while doing ordinary things. You might say the line from Our Town—“choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough”—helped inform these histories, because I looked to simple, everyday moments. Nora’s daughter spills some juice, so she goes into the kitchen for some paper towels—when her daughter disappears. Jill is in the room with an old friend of hers watching a YouTube video, and suddenly the friend is gone. So, cleaning a spill or watching a dumb video: It’s the through minutiae of everyday life these moments come alive.
In Wilder’s play, Emily grows from childhood to falling in love to marriage and to her own too-early death. By the final act, Emily views her life in replay from beyond and exclaims: “I can’t look at everything hard enough.”
She then turns to the Stage Manager and asks, distraught: “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No—Saints and poets maybe—they do some.”
And this is the very real and starkly True center of Perrotta’s pervasive dark satire and insightful authenticity as a novelist staring at and then breathing life into the human condition, masked as fantastic events that are unimaginable, except for those who look at everything hard enough and pause to realize life every, every minute.