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‘Leave the World Behind’ offers an unclear apocalypse

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When we think about the end of the world, we tend to think big. We think of the apocalypse on a global scale, and understandably so. However, while the end may be large, the way in which we experience might be anything but.

Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” (Ecco, $27.99) offers a smaller, more intimate look at the end. Through the lens of two families – largely strangers to one another – the reader is offered a glimpse at the way in which our perceptions of the world are based on a shared reality … and what happens when that shared reality is shattered in ways we don’t and can’t possibly know.

It is a thoughtful and propulsive read, a story that draws you in and asks – nay, demands – to be compulsively consumed. This is not a book about the world bearing witness to its own end, but rather about what it means to not know, to not understand, even as our faith in our world’s permanence is irrevocably and rightly shaken apart.

Amanda and Clay are an upwardly-mobile middle-class couple from New York City. She’s in advertising, he’s a professor. They have two kids – a teenage son named Archie and a tween daughter named Rose – and a pretty decent life. They’re making their way to an isolated spot on Long Island, a week-long vacation rental where they can escape the city and spend some time living the high life in this luxurious rental property.

The trip starts out just as they expect – a beautifully appointed house with a pool and a hot tub, high-speed internet and satellite TV, cabinets filled with hot dogs and ice cream and other vacation-type foodstuffs. The kids are even getting along. Life is good.

Until it isn’t.

Everything about this vacation changes with a single late-night knock on the door. G.H. and Ruth – the house’s owners – show up unexpectedly with some disturbing news. It turns out that New York City is utterly without power courtesy of a sudden and unexplained blackout. At the house – which still thankfully has electricity – there is no internet or television service. The cell phone signal-less isolation – so appealing just a day before – now feels ominous and frightening.

None of them knows what is happening … and none of them know how to find out.

With little choice, the two families become one. These people – essentially strangers – are forced to decide whether or not to trust one another as they wait to receive word from the world beyond this isolated bubble. Are they safe here? Are they safe anywhere? As time passes, there are a few scattered indications that something big has happened – something that may have truly massive repercussions – but there’s no way of knowing what is going on … or what the future might hold.

Alam pulls a marvelous bit of literary sleight-of-hand here. We spend the first part of the book engaged in what is almost a dramedy of manners, a deconstruction of various flavors of middle-aged angst that rings familiar to any consumer of literary fiction. We even get a racial dynamic – Amanda and Clay are white, G.H. and Ruth black – that lends a tinge of cultural complexity to the situation.

Then, the author flips the script, dropping these two families into the midst of an unclear crisis. They have no way of knowing what is actually happening (though Alam weaves in just enough third-person omniscient details to give us a sense, albeit a vague and far from complete one, of the circumstances), and so are left to deal with one another as well as they can. All of them can feel that SOMETHING is happening, but without clarification or confirmation, they simply … carry on.

While the delicate narrative gymnastics are impressive enough, there’s even more to the experience of “Leave the World Behind.” Alam has a deft confidence with regard to his characters, rendering them as full and complex individuals with a quickly-sketched ease. All of them spring from the page in a matter of a few sentences, fully-formed, flaws and all. That rapidity opens the door for both narrative acceleration and thematic exploration; we know who these people are immediately, their beliefs and biases laid out for us all to see.

Then, of course, there’s the weaponized ambiguity that Alam wields throughout. Without it, we wouldn’t get the sense of creeping dread and fear and paranoia lurking just beneath the surface of it all. And ultimately, it becomes clear that not only do they not know what’s happening, they will NEVER know – for them, at least, the mystery will never be truly solved.

Too often, literature allows itself to be bound by convention and tropes. Rumaan Alam takes a different approach with “Leave the World Behind,” choosing instead to give us a blending and bending of ideas, moving in one direction before pivoting to another and blurring the lines between them, setting the compass needle to spinning and rewriting the lines on the map to create something quite different from what you’ve experienced before. Loud or quiet, large or small – every ending is its own.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 October 2020 08:08

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