We put our faith in the wrong things, Rumaan Alam tells us in his disturbing new novel. Money. Technology. Systems. We ignore what we don’t want to know and distract ourselves with travel and sex, overpriced dinners and good wine. Rome burns. We fiddle. Life goes on, until it doesn’t.
“Leave the World Behind” is about what happens when the comfort of repetition is peeled away and an unthinkable future presents itself. Terrifying in its understatement, the novel is about the end of the world and what we might do when we get there. Reading this during a global pandemic is one of the most chilling literary experiences of 2020.
Like most of us would be, Clay and Amanda are unprepared for real disaster. With their teenage children, Archie and Rose, they leave the city for a remote rental house on Long Island. Clay and Amanda aren’t rich, but they belong to the vacationing class, and a pool and the beach are enough to bury existential fears about climate change, terrorism, international discord and disastrously inept political leadership.
But then the homeowners, G.H. and Ruth, show up. There has been a massive blackout in the city, they say. Something’s wrong. Cellphones are down. The Emergency Broadcast System is up. Can they spend the night and decide what to do in the morning?
Does it matter that G.H. and Ruth are older, wealthier, Black? Of course it does. “Leave the World Behind” exists solidly in the modern world, where race and class shape, define and separate us. Alam has examined these subjects with a lighter touch in “Rich and Pretty” and “That Kind of Mother,” but in “Leave the World Behind” the situation is so dire the barriers are even more unnerving.
Clay and Amanda would never consider themselves racist, even though Amanda doesn’t quite believe G.H. and Ruth are who they say they are: “This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where Black people lived.” Clay wants to let them stay because he needs to believe that he and Amanda are good people. As the situation unravels, he will learn exactly how good he is, and he will not like the truth.
G.H. and Ruth have their own internal crises to contend with. Like most successful men, he trusts information to set things right. She worries about their daughter and grandchildren. Both treat the younger couple carefully; they know the perils of upsetting white people.
Alam doles out details of the catastrophe in simple but unsettling asides. There are no big, showy scenes of horror, but you’ll remember this book the next time you ride the subway or get into an elevator. The anxiety builds to a point where you’re afraid to turn the page and yet you can’t stop yourself. “Leave the World Behind” is scary and propulsive, but it’s also a pointed warning. Whether we’ll hear it in time is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, pass the wine.
Connie Ogle is a writer and book critic in Florida.
Leave the World Behind
By: Rumaan Alam.
Publisher: Ecco, 256 pages, $27.99.