NOVEMBER 17, 2020
THE CHARACTERS IN Rumaan Alam’s ominous new novel, Leave the World Behind, directly grapple with a series of important existential questions: 1. How do you behave in an emergency? 2. What kind of prejudices do you, liberal you, hold quietly in your heart? And 3. What do you do when you’re afraid?
The novel’s six principal characters, all stuck together in a house due to an unknown national crisis, handle these questions in their own ways. Some, like Rose, a 13-year-old girl on vacation with her family, find themselves unexpectedly and innately prepared for hardship; they are resilient, even brave. Others, like Clay, Rose’s father, are forced to confront unpleasant truths: “He couldn’t bear admitting what sort of man he was when tested.”
Leave the World Behind feels right in sync with 2020. If we have learned anything in this calamitous, unrelenting year, it is that catastrophe can be slow to unravel and unexpected when it does. And even when a calamity unfolds, there are things that still must be attended to, like eating, sleeping, scratching an itch. “Business as usual, the business of being alive.”
The story begins with Amanda and Clay, “middle-class people,” along with their two children Archie and Rose, driving from Brooklyn to the Hamptons for a summer getaway. They’ve rented a house for a week, the online description of which calls it a place to “leave the world behind.” The vacation affords them, along with the perks of relaxation and togetherness, the opportunity to pretend this luxurious life in this expensive house is their own. “[T]hey could pantomime ownership for a week.”
That illusion is quickly shattered when the home’s rightful owners, G. H. and Ruth Washington, show up late one night begging pardon but asking to be let in. “Something happened” in the city, “a blackout” they think; but the scale of it immediately feels far bigger than that — the internet is down everywhere, and before their phones crashed Amanda received a push-alert saying the blackout was affecting the entire East Coast. “This is our house,” G. H. tells Amanda and Clay, “We wanted to be in our house. Safe. While we figured out what’s going on out there.”
This, Alam’s third novel, takes place in the early days of this Armageddon-type event’s unfurling. And while the characters of the novel are geographically removed from whatever is happening, which may have spared their lives, they are forced to directly confront different challenges and dynamics.
Before the Washingtons’ arrival at the house, Leave the World Behind embodies that languid summer space where minutes move like molasses but before you know it it’s happy hour. After the arrival of G. H. and Ruth, time seems to slow even further but in the way it does in an emergency; seconds feel like minutes. “That day’s morning seemed distant.”
In addition, aside from the inherent awkwardness of homeowner and renter suddenly existing together under the same roof, Leave the World Behind tackles head-on some of the most pervasive social complexities of modern American life: class and race. It is at once a page-turner and a lyrical social commentary. G. H. and Ruth are Black, wealthy, in their 60s; Clay and Amanda are white, middle class, in their 40s. The fact that G. H. and Ruth are Black surfaces latent prejudices from their white renters. “The place was comfortable but sufficiently anonymous that she had not bothered to try to picture its owners,” Amanda reflects on the home and the people who own it. “[A]nd now, seeing them, she knew that if she had bothered to picture them, her picture would have been incorrect. This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived. But what did she mean by that?” Later on adding, “[T]hose people didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house. They might, though, clean it.”
There is also a performance of non-racism that happens among the characters and on the page. After a consideration of whether or not to let G. H. and Ruth into the house, the omniscient narrator says of Amanda and Clay, “They let those people in because they were black. It was a way of acknowledging they didn’t believe all black people were criminals.” As Clay ruminates, “Morality was vanity, in the end.”
These racial complexities are not new territory for Alam, whose previous novel, That Kind of Mother, delved into the dynamic of a white mother and a Black nanny she hires to take care of her son. Alam seems intent on exploding racism and its complexities via the analysis of very specific relationships and dynamics.
While the four adult characters in Leave the World Behind try and navigate their dynamics within the house, they also are trying to figure out what is going on in the world. “It could be fallout. It could be terrorism. It could be a bomb,” Ruth speculates about what caused the blackout. But the point being underscored seems to be that it doesn’t matter what caused it; it only matters how they cope.
Alam’s novel feels far more concerned with questions of character, prejudice, and morality than it does with plot. His book seems to be built on a thesis of exploring what disaster does to a person, and at times, the characters feel like vehicles for that thesis rather than characters in their own right. There is also coldness present that matches the sterility of the air-conditioned vacation home. These characters are undergoing an Armageddon of sorts — military jets soar overhead, flamingos come out of nowhere to play in the pool, thousands of deer flood the yard — but there is a feeling of watching these scenes from a distance. It is as if G. H., Ruth, Clay, and Amanda are trapped in a dystopian snow globe, and as we read, we are merely watching them shake, not experiencing it by their sides. Considering how visual the book is though, it is no surprise that it has already been optioned to be a Netflix movie starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. The story feels ripe to make that jump.
There is a pervasive sense that the characters are trapped in a tableau, which in part could be a commentary on their luxurious backdrop, the sly way this cocooned vacation home starts to feel suffocatingly isolated. Early in the novel a passivity settles over the group, and while that too could be because they are in a comfortable space, it is never satisfactorily examined. At times it even raises questions about whether or not this doomsday scenario is truly unfolding, though we get confirmation through the omniscient narrator that something terrible is indeed happening in the world outside the house: “The next day, or the day after that, certainly the day following that one, some residents of the uppermost apartments in Manhattan would fall into the delirium that presaged their eventual dehydration.” Those moments of zoom-out did not quiet this reader’s urge for the characters to venture forth and see the changed world for themselves. Instead, they pour more drinks, they go for a swim, they bake a cake. What else is there to do when the world is in danger but you’re safe and sound?
Leave the World Behind is an interesting type of apocalypse examination because it focuses on what happens to those removed from the action. Rather than fully examining the ramifications of this strange new world, it looks at the scars from the old world — race, class — that must be confronted in order for these characters to survive in the new. There is a reality that when things fall apart, we want to know why, but this book puts forth the suggestion that the why is irrelevant. What is relevant includes the tiny ways you can reclaim your humanity, even as the gloom of the world presses on your door. Leaving the world behind is an illusion, just like a vacation is an illusion. Reality will catch up, and Alam’s novel examines what people do differently when it does.