Rafeeq O.'s Reviews > Leave the World Behind

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
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Rumaan Alam's 2020 Leave the World Behind is an intriguing, sometimes-witty, sometimes-lyrical, occasionally frustrating novel of, apparently--or maybe just perhaps--the beginning of the end of the world. I debated whether I consider the book to be in the 4.5-star region, rounding up to 5...but no, I don't believe so. I think 4 makes more sense for me.

The premise is spelled out adequately in a couple paragraphs of the inside jacket flap: An upper-middle-class couple and their two teenaged children leave their New York City apartment for a pleasant vacation in a rental house way out in the middle of nowhere...whereupon the city behind them is hit with a blackout, the internet gives one last strangely garbled news alert and then blinks completely out, and in the middle of the night arrives, unannounced, an older couple who say they are the owners of the rental. OK, a fair enough start. But to call the book "keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class," as the flap blurb does, seems to be claiming an awful lot...

Amanda and Clay--or "the ditz and the doofus," as I like to term them--strike me from the very beginning as medium-unappealing characters, and I have a very difficult time identifying with them. Yes, I understand that an author can imply much by wryly pointing out the foibles and flaws of people, but for myself, I still do need the protagonists to have at least some characteristics I can like, admire, and sympathize with. With Amanda and Clay, however, I just don't feel this.

Office manager Amanda, for example, is shallow and, despite her veneer of self-reflection, self-absorbed and obliviously ignorant. Prior to the final internet outage, when her work emails all at once ping into her phone the car has passed through a wide area without cell service, she glows: "Forty-one! She [feels] so necessary, so missed, so loved" (2020 Ecco hardcover, page 21). She is the type of person who finds the Southern accent of a coworker of Asian descent who was born in the Carolinas "incongruous," even though she knows "[t]his [is] so racist she could never admit it to anyone" (page 3), and who, upon hearing the suggestion "What if it's the North Koreans? The fat one who fed his own uncle to the dogs" now attacking the United States, "ha[s] no idea, even" about that infamous incident, or whether the hypothetical attackers could be "the Outer Mongolians? The Lichtensteiners? The Burkinabe? Did they even have the bomb in Africa?" (page 62).

Clay is no real catch either. Now, he indeed is "a professor. English, but also media studies" (page 82), and occasionally is tapped for a 900-word piece by the New York Times Book Review (page 16). Amanda also has lucked out in that somehow--the third-person-limited narration through her view at that point claims it "seem[s] to correlate," but I myself see no correlation between professorhood and the following--he also "relishe[s]...life's useful tasks: bundling old newspapers for recycling, scattering chemical pellets on the sidewalk when the weather turned icy, replacing lightbulbs, unclogging stopper sinks with a miniature plunger" (page 2). But he is a strange, shallow person, perhaps just as shallow as Amanda.

For example, although I understand how much pressure writing sometimes can be and how glorious it is simply to have the piece finished and in print, Clay "want[s] to be asked to write for the New York Times Book Review but d[oes]n't want to actually write anything" (page 16). He "trie[s] not to, but he always [feels] moved in a very particular way by the sight of lots of money" (page 46), and he finds himself "cowed" (page 56) by the pricey Park Avenue home address of the Washingtons, the fellow New Yorkers who own the getaway house in the country.
He is a guilty smoker, "want[s] to be seen to be good" (page 89; emphasis added), and is "just selfish enough" and "proud of himself" enough (page 89) to want to be the hero and drive out to the closest town to discover what is going on. Yet on the mission Clay gets helplessly turned around, and when he finally returns without having reached his intended destination, he "l[ies] because he [is] ashamed" and cannot admit he was lost (page 142).

G.H. and Ruth, the older couple who are the owners of the house--who are black, whereas Amanda and Clay are white, so there's that in the plot as well--may have a few shortcomings here and there, but they are far more rounded, better adjusted, and more admirable than the ditz and the doofus. Despite the fact that the narrative eventually shifts around to reveal the thoughts and attitudes of all the characters, including fifteen-year-old Archie and twelve-year-old Rose, the Washingtons still are not the main focus of the book. They probably deserve a fuller discussion here, but instead let us wrap up.

Alam's writing involves a great deal of dryly ironic humor, whether in its characterization of Amanda and Clay, in the description of the family car as "A middle-class thing for middle-class people, engineered not to offend more than to appeal, purchased at a showroom with mirrored walls, some half-hearted balloons, and several more salesmen than customers, lingering in twos or threes, jingling the changes in the pockets of their Men's Warehouse slacks" (page 2), in the depiction of the twelve-year-old's flouncy pouting, or in the observation that, on the drive to the country, "[t]he towns were either blue collar and full of Central Americans or prosperous and populated by the white demimonde of plumbers and interior designers and real estate brokers," while "[t]he actual rich lived in some other realm, like Narnia" (page 4). After a fairly sedate beginning of third-person-limited, however, the narrative sometimes gets into too-swift head-hopping that I myself don't particularly favor. There also is quite a bit of sexuality portrayed, from Amanda and Clay's repeated sweaty sex to the masturbatory habits of their teenaged son, and yet although on the one hand it brings verisimilitude, on the other hand, at the end, I cannot quite help wondering "Why?"

And as to what has caused the blackout along the entire East Coast, the failure of the internet, and the disappearance of all air traffic...well, here I think Alam is really on to something. Were something to happen to us in real life, something big enough that all communications were cut off, we indeed would be groping in the dark as the book's characters are: "A dirty bomb in Times Square? Or some coordinated effort at the power plants? .... Some guy blows up a suitcase in Times Square. His pals do the same thing at the power plants. Synchronized chaos. The ambulances couldn't even get through the streets, if all the lights were out" (page 58-59). Such guessing is the only way we could proceed. The author gives the characters a number of clues to observe, some quite peculiar and some frighteningly escalating, and eventually he drops frustratingly tantalizing third-person-omniscient observations here and there to readers, including not only individual scenes back in New York City but also ominous foreshadowing too cryptic for drawing conclusions.

And then end? Well, I will confess that after I turned the last page of Chapter 40, I literally exclaimed aloud, "What?" I surely would like to know more than what the end tells me, but I cannot begrudge Alam's tactic here. As I have said, after all, this is how life works. What I can't shruggingly accept about the novel, though, are the way this exquisitely isolated house far out in the country oh-so conveniently keeps receiving electricity when the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the East Coast, seems to be falling apart, along with the fact that the even the owners tell us that water is coming in from municipal sources when of course something that far from a city would have its own well, and finally, most fundamentally, that I dislike both Amanda and Clay and would never, ever want to have them in my group during any type of apocalypse, for they are dinguses through and through. Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind was worth the read to me, but it acted a little more profound than it was, and I found enough nagging things that grated such that 4 stars was the absolute most I could give.

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Reading Progress

February 15, 2021 – Started Reading
February 21, 2021 – Finished Reading
February 28, 2021 – Shelved

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