Illustration by John Kazior

How To Be Oblivious | Complacency and Doom in Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind

Hannah Gold

Social media didn’t invent apathy, but it has a particular genius for reproducing it. At times, scrolling through one’s feed feels like reading a rollicking, absorbing social novel, but in fragments, disordered, and with the reverse effect, since when you lose yourself in it, your interest goes too, and everything is vaguely similar: what you buy, what you owe, what tragedy befell someone else. Nestled among your preferred ideology, drama, and household products, reality looks calamitous but feels safe. A voice is narrating unreliably, as if from the sky, or whatever it is that’s all you can see anymore.

This is what reading Rumaan Alam’s third novel Leave The World Behind is like. Not in its style, which lacks the attention-grabbing initiative of an algorithm, but because the potential to make meaning of its successive sentences seems totally beside the point. Alam is drawn to characters resigned to lives of quiet consumerism, shaping the novel around a couple of well-to-do, internet-addled families at a vacation home. As the families weather mysterious indications of a far-reaching and deadly disaster and their placid retreat mutates into a shelter from apocalypse, they carry on with their drinking and small-talk, never knowing what to feel or what to do. Without entertaining alternatives, they continue to shut out the world and cling to the security of their exclusive, expensive clan. The novel courts indifference and is ultimately bested by it, cast out like its characters on the shimmering surface of experience to face oblivion. 

Since its release in October, Leave The World Behind has attracted near universal praise from reviewers, appeared for several weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and was a finalist for the National Book Award. When I first read the novel, a month earlier, it had already been optioned for a movie starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. The premise is highly adaptable. Clay and Amanda, professional white residents of a fancy Brooklyn neighborhood (Carroll Gardens), and their two children, 13-year-old Rose and 16-year-old Archie, drive to a Long Island vacation in the lovely home of total strangers for $340 a night, arranged through Airbnb. The husband is supposed to be reviewing a book for the Times, but finds this process tedious, is insecure about his talents as an intellect and a patriarch, and is a professor of “English, but also media studies” with tenure. (We later get this elaboration: “Books ruined everyone — wasn’t that what his academic work was meant to show?”) We are assured that the wife, an account director whose job consists mostly of sending emails, is very much “a type,” specifically, “she was the kind of woman interested in blending in,” as indicated by “the way she wore her hair, the kinds of clothes she favored,” and furthermore she knows it: “Amanda knew that she looked like the sort of woman she was.” Largely impotent and extraneous in their professional lives, Amanda and Clay anxiously apply themselves to their “tastes,” i.e., food that tastes good to them. Most of the third chapter is a recitation of everything Amanda purchases at the local grocery store, noting twice her son’s aversion to cilantro. Rose enjoys reading, and Archie, her foil, is rather insensitive. 

Alam, raised in a wealthy suburb of D.C. by doctor and architect parents who emigrated from Bangladesh in the seventies, is a fastidious scorekeeper of wedded cosmopolitan privilege. What’s less exciting in this novel is the game itself, fixed such that all points accrue to the same column: everyone’s clueless, and a bit of a philistine. I first became familiar with Alam’s writing through his criticism. He’s had an impressive career in media, with recent stints on staff at The New Republic and the Times, plus a prolific Twitter account, and his withering gaze does not disappoint. Much else lets you down, however. No image or idea flourishes in this scathing environment. The novel was advertised and reviewed as a Get Out-style thriller that’s likewise an examination of anti-Black racism as well as an apocalypse horror story with science-fiction elements. After a few chapters that introduce us to Clay and Amanda’s family, these ingredients begin appearing on the page, but not with the insistence or subversion needed to steer the novel away from its consuming subject: how frustratingly vapid its characters are, swaddled in their fog of inexactitude.

 

The vacation has only just begun when a Black couple, strangers to Clay and Amanda, show up at the front door, explaining that they own this house and have driven up from New York City, where there’s been a blackout. G.H. and Ruth are friendly, in their sixties, and a little freaked out, though they don’t show it. They would have called, but nobody in the house has cell service, and the Internet is down, although there is electricity, conditions that remain constant for the rest of the book. Amanda, still suspicious, reveals her racial prejudice in an aside to Clay as they discuss among themselves whether to allow G.H. and Ruth to spend the night in their own house. “What if he’s the handyman? What if she’s the maid?” Clay welcomes them despite his wife’s bigoted reservations, and the close third-person narration hastily authenticates G.H. and Ruth’s identities for the reader’s benefit as well. Race is much less of an issue from here on out, and we are left with four people of means sharing a large, splendid house off the beaten path; G.H. runs a financial advising firm and lives with Ruth on the Upper East Side when they’re not at their second home.

Nobody knows what has happened or whether anyone else has been affected by a loss of basic utilities, but there’s speculation that the situation is serious and they might be in danger. In typical American fashion, most of the scenarios the adults come up with posit the barbarism of another country. (Ruth suggests it’s “the North Koreans;” G.H.’s contractor Danny thinks Iran is to blame.) Several characters remark that they are helpless without working phones, and Clay wonders at one point, “Could it be that we’re addicted to our phones? Like an actual addiction? Because I feel unwell.” Strange permutations, or perversions, of nature reminiscent of magical realism start to take place. Rose sees a herd of deer in the backyard; they all hear a loud, disturbing, unidentifiable noise; flamingos rise out of the swimming pool and fly away; some of Archie’s teeth fall out. Nobody knows what to do, and, except for a few half-hearted drives into town, nobody does much of anything but stay put. Fear eventually overtakes them, and they abdicate responsibility, ruling against checking in with the local community or even taking Archie to the hospital. It’s all very ominous, and you do want to find out what’s going on along with everyone else, but they never learn more. The reader does, a little, but the apocalyptic scenario is never explained. The narrator swoops into the minds of all the characters and sometimes perches in an omniscient pose, snidely remarking upon their ignorance. (It’s often hard to tell where the perspective is coming from, though, another way in which the novel feels evasive.) At first the vigilant voice picks on them for not knowing bits of trivia (what deer eat, the flight patterns of commercial airplanes); later, for not knowing that society is doomed. 

Although the stakes are high, the prose is constantly emphasizing the futility and insignificance of it all. More than halfway through the book Archie reflects on the tumult, “It was odd that the people who owned the house had shown up, but he didn’t care, or they seemed nice.” With pointless remarks like this the reader is kept circling the themes and issues that the novel purports to engage, but never gets any closer. This holding pattern style of writing might generously be said to reflect the listless machinations of Alam’s characters’ minds, but it isn’t always clear. (Alam’s other two novels are written this way; they also each feature basic, privileged white people as the protagonists.) Using GPS to navigate to the house, Clay and Amanda are described as “not quite lost but not quite not lost.” Then the house itself looks “old but new. […] Solid but light.” Some passages read as anxious over-writing to fill space, as when Alam indicates that a glass is “cold” several times in one scene, or describes step-by-step how to prepare a pasta dinner. Here, for instance, the narrator describes the first iteration of the terrible, mysterious noise everyone hears:

“[Amanda] was sitting there, not doing anything more, when it happened, when there was something. A noise, but that didn’t cover it. Noise was an insufficient noun, or maybe noise was always impossible to describe in words. What was music but noise; could words get at Beethoven? This was a noise, yes, but one 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.”

There are many moments where, as in this passage, the omniscient narrator, either skimming the surface of the characters’ immediate thoughts or at a greater distance, can’t supply the word to describe something, a device Alam began using liberally in his first novel Rich and Pretty. Or a freewheeling observation tumbles over its handlebars, as when the narrator tells us Danny, who barely appears in the novel at all, “had a power over men that was almost sexual, in the way that sex always ends up being about power.” What? A conversation between G.H. and Amanda about professional obligations is immediately followed by what is ostensibly a description of the temperature: “The heat was clarifying in the way of orgasm, akin to blowing your nose.” Come again? Walking around outside the house, “The gravel made its gravelly sound under Clay’s leather driving shoes.” It doesn’t exactly build the drama or advance the reader’s understanding, this magician’s trick of turning out sleeves, socks, pant legs, silk vest, wig: nothing there.

Critics have in turn praised Leave The World Behind as “enthralling” (The New Yorker), “stupendously good” (The Guardian), and “haunting” (New York Times). I’ve yet to read a review of it that didn’t also call it “prescient” — but about what? Whatever disaster has befallen humanity — never named by the narrator or glimpsed by any of the characters — is enumerated as a dirge of ghastly tragedies, anonymous strangers who swing open their door and step straight into a pothole. All across the country, the narrator tells us, people are dying horribly under conditions of social collapse. The picture the characters are able to piece together from the little they know is far less tragic: sometimes beautiful (tropical birds), uncomfortable (no wifi), or alarming (teeth!!), and, in sum, incoherent. The vacationers’ battle, then, is with uncertainty. Uncertainty is the novel’s reason for being and answer to everything. It’s the only plausible villain and a primary psychological component of each character’s interiority save for G.H., who prides himself on knowing things but only seems foolish in the end, too. By uncertainty I don’t mean doubt or ambiguity, but simply a state in which you don’t know what will happen next, or what makes life worth living, or how to make choices, nor do you care to. The novel suggests — I think rightly — that if you are rich enough this sort of paralysis tends to set in long before the wheels begin falling off the holiday rental. This is the state of the wealth hoarders who are accustomed to stabilizing their anxieties with comforting habits of consumption, who isolated themselves from the better part of human need and desire long ago. The problem is that while people sometimes engage in these behaviors, they aren’t very interesting on their own. Without particular, forceful, imaginative intervention, the story of inattentive people in freefall isn’t much distinguishable from advertising that tells you life is not worth living, but at least there is finally a bathrobe designed with you in mind. This novel is one thing after another, each flash of information given more or less the same weight.

 

What is meant by “prescient,” then, must be the ambient sense that many are tethered to the homes that once comforted them and that nobody knows what’s coming next. The reader is repeatedly prodded to remember that even Alam’s bougie protagonists aren’t safe, that their safety was an illusion (although nothing truly horrible befalls any of them). By the end of the novel we are meant to empathize with the characters as much as we find them irksome. The book’s final lines assure the reader, “the world still held something, and that mattered,” and assert that all the families can do is unwind with a magazine, drag out the pool floats, and carry on with their lives as usual — together. It’s kind of like if the book ended with the quarantine “Imagine” video. Either the novel is prefigurative, or it is lucky to stand like a tourist on the precipice of our present-day reality, sharpened but not reshaped by mass illness and death, in which inequality has widened and Airbnb’s valuation has shot up. Leaving the world behind has only become a more precious commodity since the book deal was inked; the wealthy are safe but the price is steeper.  

There are also many more depressed, desperate, lonely, and vulnerable people, but the vast majority are immured within cruel economic and political incentives that exploit their humanity, not necessarily bewitched by their own comfort and self-interest. Leave The World Behind needn’t address the rest of the people, or anyone at all beyond its domestic remit. Yet as the novel spirals to its conclusion, the narrator’s cold eye wanders from its characters to humanity in general, as if to justify the insular scenes we have just read, or to satisfy a particular reader, one who wants timeliness, thrills, flamingos, and profundity. It should look like uncertainty but feel so right, like a newscaster who assures you night after night that nothing will ever be the same again. The book, which has read so far like a scenic tour of what typically goes into a novel — sentences (with or without the right words), meditations on money and race, characters who are very much a type, something unexplained, a definite setting — can’t make it home safely without broadcasting a bigger picture. 

So that’s what we get. Following Rose as she ambles through the woods, the narrator proposes that maybe nature would “be better off without us. Sometimes, sometimes, suicide was a relief. That is the right noun for what was happening,” (well, which is it — suicide or relief?) and a few lines later, zooming out on what’s happening far away: 

“Did it matter if an asthmatic woman named Deborah died after six hours trapped on an F train stalled beneath the Hudson River, and that the other people on the subway walked past her body and felt nothing in particular? Did it matter that machines meant for supporting life ceased doing that hard work after the failure of backup generators in Miami, in Atlanta, in Charlotte, in Annapolis?” 

Does it matter that the F train runs beneath the East River, not the Hudson? There is no answer to any of this, only the proposition that “Nothing matters to children but themselves, or perhaps that is the human condition.” In the novel’s final scene, this impassive voice accompanies Rose into the woods once more, this time in search of food and shelter her family might need later to survive. The voice whispers its sinister knowingness. Beyond the forest “Some people were committing suicide,” we are told, and “All the babies in the neonatal intensive care unit died within hours.” We learn that a mother in Maryland has drowned her daughters in a bathtub, presumably to spare them a worse fate, though of course we don’t know what that might have been, or anything else about these people. “It took unimaginable courage to kill your children. Few people could manage it” is the awful conclusion. A few lines later the narrator describes a prison collapsing on dozens of inmates as “unexpected liberty.”

The glib cynicism comes too easily, is not earned. I don’t think the reader is exactly meant to care deeply about our deluded protagonists’ fates, but these supporting cast members are hardly elevated above the scenery. You might instruct someone on how to set a table in just this tone. Why should these people be trotted out at the end just to suffer? It’s as if the voice is daring the reader to admit that nothing can be done and scroll on by. But what would be the point of that? To get the reader to recognize her complicity? To conspire along with her? To shrug at life and get on with the business of writing books? 

Any of these is possible. In a recent interview with GQ, Alam admitted he identifies with the sort of characters his novel sketches, saying, “I’m as complacent and impotent as anyone I’m talking about. Like, what have I done? My own complacency and complicity is what it is. It’s just a fact. And I think we don’t want to believe that of ourselves, but I think you kind of have to.” Fleshing out this last point, Alam suggests that people would like to think they make moral choices in moments of crisis or “heightened tension,” but history shows otherwise, and he was interested in exploring that in his novel. “Think about the narrative of the Second World War and the handful of everyday heroes who stood up and said, ‘You will not take my neighbor away.’ Those are great stories. But maybe the larger story is really the people who are like, ‘Yeah, it’s sad that you’re taking my neighbors away, but oh well, what can I, one person, possibly do?’” Leave The World Behind doesn’t seem much interested in the question, but wondering what one person can possibly do is a good jumping off point for a novel, or any work of art. After all, nobody needs to invent nihilism; fiction is for building a world.

Hannah Gold is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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