The two couples and two children hunker down in the gilded cage that they have complicated rights to be in, cut off from the world. A smug and knowing narrator throws us a few gloomy bones – commuters suffocating in an elevator; a Midwestern mother drowning her children in the bathtub – but otherwise we are confined to the upstate, upscale rental house and its strange bedfellows. It works. The physical containment and convincing dialogue bring to mind a memorable stage play. And rather than employing the blunt instruments of apocalyptic cliché (terror, cruelty, resilience, even love), Alam mines, with disarming plausibility, the brittle rules of contemporary bourgeois society. How catastrophic does it have to be before we stop getting drunk on holiday, pricking up our ears when we hear that a fellow survivor runs admissions at an exclusive school, or cringing when a white character tells an older Black man that he looks like Denzel Washington?
As the book’s caustic ambitions falter, what remains is something more raw-hearted and earnest, a novel about the agonies of parenting. How can you love one another, once you realise you cannot save one another? Alam asks. How can you look your child in the eye when you realise their world will be worse than yours? That’s no dystopic hypothetical: it’s the sound of the future pounding at the door.
Even with the cataclysmic events, the writing has a darkly comic undertone that recalls Jenny Offill and, particularly, Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Alam’s depiction of a New York family and its milieu echoes the latter’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, and his insights into character motivation ring true no matter which voice his omniscient narrator taps into. Here’s Amanda on her latent sexual desire, awakened by being on holiday:
“There was some stirring, watching his hands at work, but vacations did that, didn’t they, made you horny, made everything seem possible, a life completely different than the one you normally inhabited.”
Without any exaggeration, I can honestly say that I devoured Rumaan Alam’s new novel, Leave the World Behind, in one greedy, uneasy gulp. It’s a taut page-turner – one that starts out as a smart, knowing, contemporary comedy of manners, but quickly spirals into an apocalyptic nightmare so terrifyingly realistic that it sent shivers down my spine. I rarely react so viscerally to the books I read, but this novel left me feeling more agitated, unsettled and generally unnerved than anything else I can remember in recent months, which – given the state of the world – is saying something.
In his dazzling prose, his fascination with catastrophe and his apparent ability to portend the future, Alam is a worthy descendant of Don DeLillo, whose new novel, The Silence, also imagines the results of our indispensable communications network going down. But this book is most reminiscent of DeLillo’s great early work White Noise (1985). It explores the way American abundance is really an attempt to shield against disaster, and warns that our comfort is precarious, even when it seems least so. It, too, is a novel about fear.
Leave the World Behind was written before the coronavirus crisis and yet it taps brilliantly into the feeling of generalised panic that has attached itself to the virus and seems to mingle fears about the climate, inequality, racism and our over-reliance on technology... Leave the World Behind is an extraordinary book, at once smart, gripping and hallucinatory. It’s no surprise that Netflix is working on an adaptation starring Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. When future generations (if that term doesn’t sound over-optimistic at the moment) want to know what it was like to live through the nightmare of 2020, this is the novel they’ll reach for.
The pacing of the second half of Leave the World Behind is sharp: it is gripping to witness the rising panic of the characters as they face up to their worst fears (and you will certainly wince at what happens to Archie). Alam has written a genuine literary thriller, one that is also a disturbing window into our precarious age. It’s no surprise that the novel has already been snapped up by Netflix for a film to star Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington.
But unlike many — say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — it gives us not the aftermath, but the first steps. It’s a close-up narrative, and its strength lies in the emotional pull rather than thematic concerns of race and inequality. At first the characters try to carry on as normal — movie, hot tub, married sex — and the story’s blend of daily life and the end of days is reminiscent of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, where the stiff-lipped characters joked about their preferred flavour of cyanide pill as they waited for the radiation to reach Melbourne.
Soon a satisfying, to the reader, panic takes hold. There’s something for everyone: that is, to terrify everyone, from parents to nature lovers to hypochondriacs. One nice foreboding touch is when we see flamingos and deer migrating en masse: the animals know something we don’t.
The book is billed as a literary thriller, and has already been snapped up by Netflix to be adapted into a film starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. By following the unfolding disaster from the perspective of each character, we become less suspicious of their motives, and some of the suspense is lost. Yet the novel excels in its dissection of modern liberal America and forces the reader to confront the limits of their own heroism in the face of disaster.