Book Review by Jude Joseph Lovell
Rumaan Alam, a Brooklyn-based writer of Bangladeshi-American descent, has written a third novel called Leave The World Behind that has generated a buzz for raising timely, provocative questions and for its page-turning fluidity. I’m leading with the good news. The bad news is the book is heavily influenced by a particular point of view on social and political matters that is catnip for the literati types on America’s coasts but condescends heavily towards other perspectives.
The result is a highly engaging but divisive novel—not in itself a bad thing. But how much you enjoy it depends to some degree on how you identify with the novelist’s view of the world, specifically in the 2020s in America.
Leave The World Behind has clever hooks, right down to the title, lifted from the online Airbnb description of a vacation home located in a wealthy region of Long Island that is rented by the protagonists, New Yorkers Clay and Amanda. I love that touch, and I appreciate the relatable and fast-moving set-up: the couple and their two growing children desire to unplug and escape the constant pressures of urban life and the workaday world, so they locate a house that’s well away from the city for a week-long adventure “off the grid.”
Simple enough, and familiar—at least for those who can afford such things. But about a third of the way in, a mysterious blackout occurs in the city, which is merely the prelude to a much larger blackout, which is in turn the prelude to an even bigger, global event that may or not be apocalyptic. The novel is never too specific about what is going down, leaving a reader to grasp at straws (pleasurably, for this one).
Broader implications aside, troubling as they are, what it means specifically for Clay and Amanda is that it sends the owners of the home to the couple’s (rented) doorstep, seeking their own sanctuary despite the agreed-to terms. This is where the tension really begins to escalate.
As it happens, the owners, G.H. and Ruth Washington, are black (the fact that the “G” stands for George is one of several wink-wink, nudge-nudge moments in this novel). Inevitably, at least to the writer’s way of thinking, this leads Amanda—standing in for comfortable, white Americans—to suspect that this couple couldn’t possibly own the place. “They might, though, clean it,” she muses.
Unsurprisingly, the white couple isn’t thrilled with the shift in their group dynamics. But it becomes clear quickly that the Washingtons aren’t going anywhere, understandably. So they all settle in to make the best of things, which is what we say when vacations go south. Notably, the two children are cool with it, lacking the perhaps inherited prejudices of their parents.
In any case, it soon becomes clear that all concerned have bigger fish to fry, as they say.
Increasingly alarming incidents begin to occur, suggesting that the world at large has suddenly drawn much closer to the comeuppance it’s been begging for the whole time—only much quicker than anyone imagined.
From there, the novel becomes an apocalyptic thriller, and I admired its pacing, economical prose, and the artistry of the book in general. Alam employs brief chapters, and a somewhat risky technique of hewing close to the individuals in the house, although on selective occasions he pulls back enough to drop a small detail, Hansel and Gretel-like, into the story that implies a much more terrifying reality. In this way the tension is heightened to horror-novel levels at times, while we get to know the characters in intimate terms. It pays off.
What doesn’t, at least for this reader, is the writer’s imperious tone and unnecessary proclivity to flex his “literary” muscles. I struggled with how some of this novel offended my own view of things, socially, politically, even spiritually. But I think I’m an experienced enough reader to set such things aside and contemplate the legitimate inquiries that Alam’s story probes. America does indeed have a racist heritage, and White people often do have suspicions about successful people of color. We are definitely addicted to our technology. Traditional assumptions about how men in particular should behave in a crisis are often misguided. All of these are commented on in Leave The World Behind, and it’s the rare thriller that can bring this off.
The problem is how Alam executes all of this. The novel exudes a distinct odor of self-assurance and moral superiority. It is heavily implied throughout the book that ours is a Godless universe governed by “logic.” “There [is] no real structure to prevent chaos,” Alam writes, “only a collective faith in order.” Ruth’s atheism is characterized as a “definite improvement”—over what I was never sure. A returned declaration of love, in this novel, is dismissed as an “echo . . . merely a trick of physics.” I wonder how that goes over at home.
Leave The World Behind presents a woke-ish view of the world that it assumes readers are enlightened enough to accept. A trip to the grocery to purchase “Ben & Jerry’s politically virtuous ice cream” takes as a given that the company’s political grandstanding is morally failsafe. Amanda’s issue with how the children’s classic Charlotte’s Web “limns generosity with femininity” suggests that anyone with the benefit of an education sees it that way, too.
My other problem is that, while Alam labors to craft “literary” prose—and he’s good at it—in many places he overextends. In a novel that takes such pains to be morally and culturally astute, this hobbles the effort. Amanda applies sunscreen and feels “the stuff of herself, ropy and fibrous, beneath her skin.” An intense spell of heat is “clarifying in the way of orgasm.” “Rose was wide awake. Rose restored by the night. Rose, abloom.” Yikes.
One off-hand moment from this frequently savvy novel perhaps unintentionally distills this reader’s overall frustration with the experience. Sitting around outdoors in the story’s bucolic setting, despite many portentous and unexplained events, the characters experience a moment that is “holy in a noncommittal way.”
Is it possible to achieve holiness, religious or secular, without commitment? Or anything else worth pursuing, for that matter? If it is, perhaps I’m missing the point, but my own flawed attempts strongly suggest otherwise.
Photo credit by: Jude Joseph Lovell from the book cover.
Jude Joseph Lovell writes on books and popular culture for Silver Sage and is the author of four novels, three short story collections, and four works of nonfiction. His newest book is Door In The Air: New and Selected Stories, 1999-2020. He lives with his wife and four growing children in the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. For more information visit his website at judejosephlovell.com.