Rumaan Alam's Uncannily Prophetic Page-Turner

Posted by Cybil on September 30, 2020
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Rumaan Alam began writing Leave the World Behind with a series of tweets on a secret Twitter account he started two years ago.
The book that resulted from its 280-character beginning is a page-turning drama that raises issues of class, race, and connection told through the lens of a family vacation that begins just as American life as we know it is coming to an end.
Clay and Amanda leave New York City with their two kids and check into an Airbnb that promises to provide a place to “leave the world behind.”
It is not long before the owners of the house come to the front door with news of the place they have just left—there has been a massive blackout in New York City. Can they stay in the house just for the night?
The drama of the story that follows unfolds over a 72-hour period of time. We learn the truth about the owners of the house and details of the aftermath of the blackout, and we are given a look into the psyche of this American family.
Leave the World Behind is eerily prophetic for the time in which we are living. Alam spoke to Goodreads contributor April Umminger about this story and its universal relevance as well as its relevance to the events of today. Their conversation has been edited.

Goodreads: To start, in reading Leave the World Behind, it felt uncannily prophetic—what do you make of the timing and the themes in your book, and what is going on in the world now?

Rumaan Alam: Obviously, it is pure coincidence. What is prophetic or what’s eerie or what's resonant about this is the specifics.
This is a book about people trapped inside of a home, and the reality for those of us lucky enough to be able to do our work remotely is that we're kind of living trapped inside of our homes, for the greater good. We're confronting head-on this particular note of confinement.
But we're not really confined. We're not in prison. We're just staying home. We're trying to do what's right for the public health, but it's wearing on people. The book distills a similar feeling. I had no idea that this feeling would be so prevalent. It's a weird, eerie coincidence.
At the same time, what I have been trying to point out is that the function of art is to distill the feeling of the moment. This is not a new feeling, necessarily, and I think we've seen other books this year that I would love to believe my book is in conversation with. I'm thinking specifically of Weather by Jenny Offill and also A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet.
I don't want to speak for them, but I sense that there's a way in which the art that's emerging right now is reckoning with a feeling of unease that dates back longer even than 2016, and that has been with us for some time. It's just coming into the culture right now.

GR: What about the other two books puts Leave the World Behind in conversation with them?
RAWeather captures an intellectual response to existential anxiety. It's a book about a fiercely intelligent consciousness trying to make sense of a world that increasingly makes little sense. That's the drama of the book—what's duked out on the pages is the inability of the mind to make sense of what's happening to the world.
With A Children’s Bible, the resonance is even more close because she's writing a book about people on vacation in a beautiful home. It's a very discomforting read, and it's using a lot of the same things that I'm using, which is children and peril, or comfortable domesticity to remind us about the fragile or perilous state of the world itself.
GR: That’s really well put. Can you talk about the process of writing this book and your process of writing books in general?
RA: The seed for this book was planted in the period of the winter of 2017. I wanted to write this book, but I was working an office job and had a very different experience of life. Writing fiction scratched an itch that is so deep inside of me that it was the only way to get to it. But I was working, and I have two kids, and I could not make the space for it.
I am someone who tweets a lot. I realized at some point: Tweeting is just writing. In tweets, I am just wasting my words in this amorphous, undisciplined way. I thought, what if I apply that discipline to advancing a novel?
I made a second Twitter account that was secret, no one could follow, and I started writing the book as tweets. I started massaging sentences, figuring out the character names, trying to make a story progress, and trying to make a story accrue.
I didn't do this for very long, but it did show me that I still had the intellectual engagement in the project and that it's something I cared about finishing.
My husband had a bunch of hotel points, so I stayed at this Hilton hotel in Brooklyn for free, for a week and just wrote. I was there six days, and in that period, I wrote half of the book. I finished a draft of this book in about three weeks.
In some ways, that informed the shape of the book. The book itself takes place over a 72-hour period. It’s easier to do that, sustain that, in a book shaped in this manner.
I spent the rest of that year revising and shaping and rethinking how the book would work. Much of that work was done, again, in hotel rooms.

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GR: Does the Twitter account still exist?

RA: It is still there. I should probably delete it. It really would be like when I look in my old notebooks and see the very first lines of my first two books. It is important that you need to begin somewhere, but then it gets erased. It ceases to matter because what matters is the book that has accrued.
GR: Then where did you get the idea for the story?
RA: I wanted to write a tight domestic book but stitch it together in such a way that it was clear that I was talking about the whole world. That in talking about one family's experience, it was talking about the reader’s experience also.
As I mentioned, the home in the book is based on a home where my husband and family and I stayed in 2017. So, the literal seed was planted when I was at this beautiful house. I thought I could really do something with that house as a locus of desire and beauty and joy.
Then I thought, how can I make that interesting? How can I make it more than just a standard issue here-are-people-on-vacation novel?
GR: This book is interesting in that it is so existential in feel. You have so much going on in terms of these different topics: of race, of home, of barriers to connectivity. I was wondering who is your ideal reader, and what would you have them take from this story?
RA: My feeling is the book is an inert object until the reader possesses it. Then my ability to exert control over things stops once the reader takes over. So, the ideal reader would be anybody who has the time and the patience to engage with the work and think about it in some fashion.
In terms of what I hope they take away, this is a book that is concerned with race, is concerned with class, is concerned with the things that hold people apart from one another. It is concerned with the ways in which those are maybe meaningless in the context of what is happening to all of us, to all of humanity. That is what the book is punching out.
But if a reader comes to it and finds just a feeling of suspense and fear that she finds enjoyable, then that is also valid. If there is a reader who comes to it and finds it a parable about race only, that's also valid.
GR: One thing I thought was interesting, which I'm not sure you could have predicted before this time, is the urban-rural divide and urbanites leaving the city and feeling more protected in rural spaces. Is that something you considered before?
RA: That's the drama we're reading about in the real estate pages of The New York Times. There is a very old expression, of course: “safe as houses.”
There's a very old idea about the idealized home. Think about the way children draw home. Even children who grow up in cities, as my children have, the way kids draw home is a little square with little square windows punched out in the front and a peaked roof and a chimney with a curl of smoke coming out of it.
That is such an essential part of our cultural imagining of home as a safe, sanctified little spot. There is a way in which we are deeply connected to that ideal.
Until you said that, it hadn't occurred to me that that's precisely what happens. What happens in the book is what is happening in reality right now. Well-to-do urbanites are retreating to a place that possesses more space and provides a comfortable distance from humanity.

GR: In talking about events in the book itself, there is a point in the book where the father of the vacationing family, Clay, leaves the house in search of information and runs into a Hispanic woman, who does not speak English but is panicked and alone in the country. In thinking about themes that you have got in terms of connection and inviting people into our spaces, what did that encounter mean?

RA: This scene that you mention is a personal favorite because the Spanish word for “deer” (cierva)—that's the word that she uses—and he hears it as “beer.”
It's a deeply unflattering moment for him, like a moment of real, profound human failure. And it is an unsparing moment.
One of the things that always makes me wince is the notion of a character being unlikable. Unlikable, to me, is not a very interesting way of talking about human motivation. My response when this comes up is always, I don't really know anyone who is likable. People are complicated. Sometimes they are generally good, and sometimes they are pretty awful.
This is a moment where the character is doing something pretty awful. But can you, in that moment, place yourself in that space and feel perhaps I, too, would do something really awful. That is my hope. That you can feel a sense of discomfort or feel a sense of indictment.
GR: Another question related to implicit bias: What were you hoping to accomplish by making the owners of the house a different race from the folks staying there?
RA: There is a baseline assumption of whiteness in all narrative. If you just meet the characters from page one, you read them as white because that is how your imagination reads. I can't speak for all people, but that's how my imagination reads because I am so accustomed to the default of “white” as every man or every woman or every person.
To have Black people show up on the doorstep feels like it's using a convention and it's meant to make you think of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner or a whole body of literature or narrative that plays with that convention.
It is not my feeling that whatever this book is doing with respect to race resides in that moment. It resides in the offending of the characters’ perceptions. The white characters in the book initially don't believe that it's even conceivable that Black people could be rich enough to own this particular house.
I hope that there are readers who are like, “What is happening here?!” This is funny and weird, and these people are racist, and it's bizarre. I want you to feel all of those things that have, simultaneously, a way of clarifying that the way we talk about race in this country is really weird and reductive and often very confusing and silly.
GR: You mentioned several countries throughout the story, including Iran, North Korea, Rwanda, Lebanon—all places that have gone through different, horrible situations. These crises seem similar to and different from what happens to the United States in your book. Is this meant to be a commentary or judgment of our awareness of global events and our reaction as a country?
RA: The arrogance of American exceptionalism is very complicated, and it is something we are all party to. We believe ourselves a nation apart from the planet when, of course, we are not.
This affirms my earlier statement about how the book comes alive in the hands of the reader. Your understanding or your perception of this geographic roll call is to think about our political indifference to catastrophe abroad.
Other people might see the introduction of North Korea, that the answer to whatever is happening in the book, it’s North Korea or it’s Iran or it’s Russia. The book raises the possibility that the United States is under attack and suggests that it might be at the hands of one of those countries.
To me, that is one of the ways in which this book is a realist novel because there is no clear answer in the world about what is really happening around us.
GR: Modern-day life and the overreliance of these characters on technology was interesting to see play out. Has technology made us helpless?
RA: That's me in a nutshell—I can't do anything! Can you do anything? [Laughs.]
When we have those prolonged periods away from our phone, you're like what am I missing? What did I miss? What do I need to know? You don't really need to know, but we've become habituated to it.
I loved playing with that feeling.
If the book feels like a tense experience for the reader, which I hope it does, part of the reason is because you can understand what it feels like to not be able to look at your phone and you can understand that particular kind of frustration.

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GR: Where did the title of the book come from?
RA: I like a title that exists inside of the text—that it’s very comfortably nestled inside, so when you encounter it inside the book, there's that moment of “yes, this makes sense to me. I see its relationship to the story being told.”
I had a feeling all along [that] the most suitable title of the book [should] be the Airbnb listing language. The way the owners of the house talked about the house on Airbnb, almost like a sales pitch.
I was looking at real estate listings and seeing that real estate language like “sunny, rural beauty” or whatever jargon realtors use to sell properties, eluded me. I needed something that had a little more nuance to it or you could read a couple of different ways.
The idea of Leave the World Behind made so much sense because you can imagine a realtor saying that. The notion that a luxurious place provides you some escape from the larger world. That is the promise of this house in the book.
Of course, by the end of the book the reader understands the impossibility of leaving the world behind. The world is the one thing that we are completely hostage to.
GR: That's a little depressing but true. One thing about your characters is that they all seem to want to be good people, potentially with the exception of Danny, who is a contractor who is consulted when one of the characters becomes sick.
RA: I would argue even Danny wants to be a good person. It is just his mode of being a good person has to be a good protector/husband/father. His discharge of the authority of being a man is to protect his wife, protect his kid, and that is his particular perspective.
These are people who are thrown together and generally want to do right by one another. Of course, Clay completely fails to do that and acknowledges that particular transgression, but by the time he admits that, they have moved onto other, bigger problems.
GR: Did you think about that as a tipping point of disasters? We all want to be good people, but when resources start drying up and our options become fewer and fewer, we show that we are animals, too.
RA: Absolutely. There is a reason there are so many animals in the book. There is a way in which these responses are animal.
The impulse to do good is probably what we would call the human impulse. Humans possess morality—deer do not possess morality, as far as we are able to guess. But humans do, and so humans understand what you do to help a person in distress.
Humans have completely failed at this. But we tell ourselves, we want to believe, that is what we are aiming for. But we fall short all the time. All the time.
I do think there is a mostly good-faith attempt on the part of people to do good when it is comfortable for them to do good.
GR: In the animal migrations that you show as a response to the incident that has happened—you have deer, which seem natural to rural New York, but why flamingos?
RA: I was trying to think of the most uncanny-looking animal possible, and flamingos are extremely uncanny. The way their legs bend backward has always been uncomfortable to me. They're very beautiful, they’re very elegant, they’re very otherworldly.
The book doesn't answer a lot of questions, but in this reluctance to answer questions, some of those things become answers unto themselves.
The oddity of the appearance of a tropical bird in New York doesn’t tell you what happened, but it tells you that something has happened. Something is going on. The book is confirming something that the book has only hinted at prior.
GR: Rumaan, which books are you reading now?
RA: I’m going to tell you the books I already read that I think are the great books of this season. One of the most extraordinary books is Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar.
He is writing a fiction, but it is very clear that the project is digesting his own life. He's writing about what it is to be an immigrant, what it is to be a son, what it is to have a father who was falling short. It's a very smart way of thinking about what we have come to call autofiction.
Another book that I absolutely love is Bryan Washington's novel Memorial. It is one of the only books I've ever read that may be hungry. It’s a heartbreaker of a book, so it's silly for me to talk about the food.
GR: Then last, how do you think this book speaks to this uncertain time we are living in now?
RA: This book is a product of the time, but it is also not fixed in time. It is a response to the ways in which the culture feels right now. But I would argue the pace of the culture feels so fast, but it has been this way for quite some time. This thrum of unease, these feelings [that] things are not quite right. I hope people will recognize that feeling on the page.

Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind will be published in the U.S. on October 6. Be sure to add it to your Want to Read shelf!

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by Debi (new)

Debi Marrs This just arrived yesterday from Book of the Month Club!! So excited!!

message 2: by Rajasree (new)

Rajasree Jayaram Great article!

message 3: by Maye (new)

Maye Labadie Rumaan Alam's " Leave the World Behind" is exactly describing the issues our American society is facing. Now I would get phd dissertation writing help to write these points in my assignment. This book is beautifully depicting some massive issues like gender and racial discrimination.

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