Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Apocalyptic stories – a sub-genre of science fiction – have been written since 1500 BCE when the Ancient Mesopotamians collected tales such as the Sumerian creation myth and the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Apocalyptic novels gained considerable popularity after World War II during the Cold War era when the threat of global annihilation by nuclear weapons entered the human consciousness.

These novels are generally characterised by a catastrophic event which causes the collapse of the world’s civilizations.  Leave the World Behind is a fine example of an apocalyptic novel set in the twenty-first century but, in this story, the nature and cause of the catastrophic event remains unknown.  The novel focuses on the psychological capacity of the protagonists to manage in a world which seemingly is without technology, where the usual coping strategies are ineffective, and where information is absent.

There is also a sub-text examining contemporary issues such as race, class and gender set within what is essentially a novel about middle-class respectability and its notions of masculinity and femininity.  The respective roles of men and women are referenced from time to time as in: Their one-time therapist had long ago urged Amanda not to be angry when Clay failed to act as she might have [49]; and Clay had already imagined Amanda and the other woman screaming.  Maybe it was unkind to equate femininity with fear [43].

The writing style is very much in the here and now – moment by moment the narrative unfolds making the reader almost at one with the characters.

The story begins simply enough with the opening paragraph demonstrating the conversational tone of the novel: Well.  The sun was shining.  They felt that boded well – people turn any old thing into an omenThe sun where the sun always was.  The sun persistent and indifferent [1].  But the narrative is slowly drawing the reader towards something as yet unknown and – as family soon learns – unknowable.  Clay and Amanda, with their teenage children Archie and Rose, rent an Airbnb in the country to enjoy fresh air and the countryside.  Perhaps as a presage for what is to come, the advertorial description for the house includes the words: Stop in our beautiful house and leave the world behind [7].

Then late one night, a stranger knocks on the door and requests to come in.  The man is joined by his wife and they claim to be the owners of the property.  They have come for a safe haven from the catastrophic event which has just occurred in New York causing widespread blackouts.  No one seems to know exactly what has happened and there are no signs of the catastrophe in the mountains.  Reluctantly, Clay and Amanda allow them to come in and over the next few days they gradually accommodate the strangers’ presence.

Although the lights still function, there is no television, telephone service, or internet connection.  They are essentially cut off from the world thus creating confusion and fear as the characters struggle to make sense of the situation.  Although the family convinces itself that the blackout is temporary, there are, throughout the narrative, suggestions that the situation will never revert to normal.  Then suddenly, there is a noise ‘so loud that it was almost a physical presence, so sudden because of course there was no precedent’  [127]; and the noise has confirmed for the family and the visitors that ‘something had happened, something was happening, it was ongoing’ [127].

The author describes the slow descent of the characters into thoughts of death, of annihilation, as they cling to each other in the dawning realisation that this is it.

This is a chilling novel made more so because of the absence of any explicit details of the catastrophe; there are no bombs, no explosions, no tsunamis or earthquakes just the immeasurable and unknowable ‘noise’ – and its repetition – at a considerable distance from them.  The chilling nature of the novel is enhanced by the disconnect between the routine tasks and conversations performed by the characters in the early part of the narrative and the later implied catastrophe.

The writings of Rumaan Alam have appeared in the New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal.  His previous novels are Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother.

Leave the World Behind

[2023]

by Rumaan Alam

Bloomsbury

ISBN 978 152667 205 6

$22.99; 241pp

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