Leave the World Behind
Rumaan Alam, a Brooklynite himself, begins his third novel, Leave the World Behind (2020), as if it were a domestic comedy of manners about a Brooklyn family on vacation in Long Island. Alam transforms the story, with its serious and witty commentary on social class and race relations, into a psychological thriller—a dystopian tale about the end of the world. Nature and wildlife react to unnatural activities, and Alam sprinkles a hint of sex and actual sex into the story. The novel, which has generated plenty of buzz, is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.
There's a sumptuous fullness of language to the writing, lively metaphors, and a sense of humor that make for a wonderful narrative. But before you decide to read this book, ask yourself if a thriller about catastrophe, class, and racism is something you really want to read during a real pandemic and actual political turmoil.
Alam wryly portrays Clay and Amanda as a typical middle-class, middle-aged white couple who take their teenage kids, Archie and Rosie, on a much-needed one-week vacation in a car that’s a “middle-class thing for middle-class people.” Their destination: an Airbnb on Long Island advertised as “The Ultimate Escape,” or so Amanda has read. “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind,” the ad says. The parents are Liberal Democrats. Clay, a tenured English and media studies professor at City College, writes an occasional book review. His wife Amanda is an account director who works in “the office” at a profession that Clay “largely—but not entirely—understood,” which works out all right because Amanda doesn’t really know what “media studies” means. That’s okay because, as the third-person omniscient narrator says for Clay, “A spouse should have her own life, and Amanda’s was quite apart from his. Maybe that helped explain their happiness. At least half of the couples they knew were divorced.”
Anyway, Amanda stocks up on picnic food. Alam’s list of her groceries runs a couple pages to give you the idea that these folks are kind of bourgeoise-y and kind of trendy. And middle-class. The food includes organic hot dogs, extra-garlicky hummus, heirloom tomatoes; drinks—Tito’s vodka and nine-dollar red wine; “twelve-dollar maple syrup in a faceted glass bottle like a tacky perfume,” and for dessert, Pepperidge Farm cookies and “three pints of Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream.”
Having established our middle-class white family—I did say they are middle-class, didn’t I?—Alam takes them and us out to the Airbnb. It’s a little place made of brick and black and white that rents for only $340 a day. “The house looked old but new. It looked solid but light. Perhaps that was a fundamentally American desire, or just a modern urge, to want a house, a car, a book, a pair of shoes, to embody these contradictions.” Alam, perhaps with his tongue in cheek, suggests that this house is part of the American Dream, affordable if only for a week. The family eats, swims, and generally enjoys themselves as much as a family on vacation with two teenagers can. Both Clay and Amanda agree that vacations make you horny. But this domesticity is upended when there’s a knock at the door. But no one knew where they were, not even the GPS, in this house near the ocean, lost in farmland, in “this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest.” Who could it be, they worry.
So, guess who’s coming long after dinner: a Black couple in their 60s, George, who likes to call himself G. H., and his wife Ruth Washington. G. H. is “handsome, well proportioned though maybe a little short.” He holds up his hands in a “gesture that was either conciliatory or said Don’t shoot. By his age, black men were adept at this gesture.” The couple explain that they were returning from a symphony in the Bronx when a blackout began and they thought it would be safer to go to their second home.
They own the property, but Amanda and Clay have never met George and Ruth, and Amanda isn’t so sure they are who they say they are. Upon the Washingtons’ arrival, Alam’s omniscient narrator inhabits the minds of Amanda and Clay, manipulating us into being as wary of G. H. and Ruth as the white couple are. Are they con men, home invaders? The technique builds suspense, but makes you feel that you’ve been tricked into being as racist as Amanda. Amanda thinks, “Wasn’t this the plot of Six Degrees of Separation? They let those people in because they were black. It was a way of acknowledging that they didn’t believe all black people were criminals. A canny black criminal could take advantage of that!” On the other hand, just how many 60-year-old home-invader con men dress like they’ve just come home from the symphony? Suffice it to say, Amanda is more worried than Clay.
Alam not only satirically names G. H. after a white man who owned slaves, he makes him a wealthy financier who believes in the power of information to create wealth. G. H. (George Herman) is the quintessential New Yorker, even his sexagenarian babe is named Ruth. So, it’s not surprising that Alam’s sardonic sense of humor leads him to have Clay debate with himself about using a baseball bat to defend a castle, which is not actually his. Later, when Amanda is drunk, she realizes G. H.’s name is George Washington. She also thinks G. H. looks like Denzel Washington and asks him if they’re related. Amanda’s latter remark, is, of course, racist, but if Alam was baiting Denzel to play George in the movie, he got his wish just as in another catastrophe, a real one, Dr. Fauci got his Brad Pitt wish. Denzel will play a tall G. H. in the Netflix movie.
But racism is only a part of the tension. Amanda has gotten incomplete news alerts on her phone about a blackout, and soon, cell phone reception is down completely. WiFi doesn’t work. There’s still electricity to charge a phone, but to what purpose? Later, they hear a noise “so loud that it was almost a physical presence, so sudden because of course there was no precedent. There was nothing (real life!), and then there was a noise. Of course they’d never heard a noise like that before.” Meanwhile, hundreds, maybe thousands, of deer are stampeding through the woods and people’s gardens. Soon, displaced pink flamingos land in and by the pool. Nature is wary. “The trees were watching, and not impartially. The trees knew what was up. The trees talked amongst themselves. They were sensitive to the seismic reverberations of bombs far distant.” But none of the characters know what exactly is happening, and all of this will be followed by more unprecedented noises.
A day will feel like a week.
Amidst all the terror and the horror of what’s to come, the four adults try to be brave, and the teenagers are, well, teenagers. Amanda and Clay frolic in bed and Amanda fantasizes about G. H. walking in on them and encouraging Clay, and joining in himself. Shortly after Clay and Amanda’s romp in bed, Amanda goes out to the deck nude and obviously postcoital, while Clay is getting drinks. G. H. comes out to the hot tub, too, and smiles nonchalantly. When Clay returns, he pretends to be cool viewing a swim-suited G. H. by the tub and a naked Amanda. Pretending to be cool doesn’t work as far as dealing with Armageddon is concerned, though. So, of course, they all try to find out what is going on in the world with no luck but plenty of adventure. Alam’s omniscient narrator knows what’s going on, but he’s not telling Clay, Amanda, or the Washingtons. The narrator does give us a few hints and examples, but never reveals the details or the “why” of it all. That uncertainty about the “why” and the lack of details about what will happen to everyone is awfully similar to the actual predicament we’re in now. You can enjoy this book, as I did, with the thought that things in our real world could be worse. It could end.