The Anxiety of the Unknown in “Leave the World Behind” – Chicago Review of Books


In our overly connected world, it is a rare moment to not have all the information. We feel more secure with the constant feed of data, even when that information foretells doom and gloom. Rumaan Alam plays on our anxiety of the unknown in his third novel Leave The World Behind, a fast-paced and haunting examination of two families forced together when the modern world disconnects. 

Clay, Amanda, and their children Rose and Archie set out to a rural beach house rented for an end-of-summer vacation. They settle into lazy rhythms of relaxation until the night an older couple knocks on the front door claiming to own the house and seeking accommodation. The couple, G.H. and Ruth, drove out of New York City to escape the darkness of an East Coast power outage. Clay and Amanda are upset by the intrusion. Even when G.H., a financial advisor by profession, opens a locked desk drawer to retrieve an envelope of cash offering to refund their rental fee, Clay remains skeptical.

Further contributing to the confusion, although the electricity remains on, the phones have gone down. The satellite television is out. The internet isn’t connecting. The cellular service, already spotty in the remote location, is non-existent. They have disconnected from the world. Clay and Amanda eventually concede forcing an elderly couple to leave in the middle of the night is a bad idea, especially when it seems they do in fact own the house.  G.H. and Ruth settle into the in-law suite with everyone agreeing to deal with their new reality in the light of morning. 

The morning brings no relief. The four adults and two teenagers then endure a continuous barrage of mysteries confronting real and existential fears for the remainder of the novel, and perhaps, for the remainder of their lives. The conclusion will frustrate readers wanting answers. The strings threaded throughout the novel are not neatly tied up. Something has happened or is happening in the world beyond these six characters, but we’re never going to know precisely what. Whether the catalyst event is natural or manmade, malicious or accidental, or even real or imagined is not the point. The enigmatic happenings are not the story Alam is telling. He’s telling a story about four adults coming to terms with who they are as people. He has given us a tightly contained narrative within the much broader scope of a frightening crisis.

The central conflict of this novel is Clay and Amanda, well-meaning but oblivious white people, confronting their own racism. G.H. and Ruth are a Black couple, older, educated, and with a lot of money, but their Blackness remains central to their identity in the eyes of Clay and Amanda. The anxiety Clay and Amanda feel when the couple knocks on the door is intensified because of Clay and Amanda’s latent racism. 

Alam makes clever and subtle reminders of their privileged obliviousness, such as when Clay, who loves sneaking off to smoke cigarettes, observes, “Tobacco was the foundation of the nation. Smoking tethered you to history itself!” Alam is linking Clay’s favorite pastime to America’s original sin. Amanda too reveals her latent racism when confronted with the possibility that G.H. and Ruth actually do own the beautiful house. She notes, “This didn’t seem to her like the sort of house where black people lived.” Perhaps she expected something less well put together: a hovel, a tenement. 

The deepest fear Clay and Amanda share is being found out as racists. They present themselves as well-meaning, and know better than to vocalize their racism to other people. For instance, Amanda works with a woman from South Carolina with Korean parents, but finds her Southerness incongruous with her heritage. But Amanda knows better, and she knows her thoughts were “so racist she could never admit it to anyone.” Clay and Amanda are constantly policing themselves, fearing how they would be perceived rather than concerning themselves with the consequences of their racism.  

Clay’s privileged position is also his weakness. When he can’t communicate with a woman because she speaks only Spanish, it serves as a reminder that he has never had to learn another language. The world has always catered to him and he’s never had to adjust his behavior. It leaves him frustrated. This contrasts with G.H., whose greatest skill is adapting to the needs of other people, even when he has the money and power. 

Alam’s prose is polished, melodic, and precise. This precision allows for the narrative perspective to wander with effortless shifts between characters. It is the trick of a skilled storyteller. Alam hones the focus too, pulling back from the close perspective to offer hints of the broader chaos beyond, yet still unknown to the characters. It has a powerful effect. The reader gains small hints of the looming catastrophe, but the point of view snaps back quickly to the characters, maintaining the suspense. 

The shifts in perspective also aids in pacing. The story is never bogged down with irritating character proclivities, whether it’s Archie acting like a teenage boy or Clay wandering around, lost without his GPS. Just as we grow comfortable in a scene, something weird happens. Alam guides the pace of the story with expert timing. Each new happening raises the tension. It’s unsettling. 

Turning the page is addictive. Alam’s narrative compels the reader forward with unexpected horrors, both terrifying and curious. The narrative, however, never dwells too long in any one place, denying us information and adding to the mystery. When Rose observes an enormous herd of deer—hundreds of them, thousands of animals—she merely speculates on the reason for their massing. We never know. The weirdness festers, haunting us, haunting the characters. Alam has written a psychological thriller with the characters’ own fears as their worst enemy. So much of this novel is about the unknown. What these characters need and want is information and it’s impossible for them to find it. The constant link to the world by internet, email, phone, television, or even radio is reassuring. Technology is reassuring, and its absence is terrifying. 

We often fantasize about leaving behind our technology-dependent world, disconnecting from the data stream pouring towards us and finding comfort by unplugging. Rumaan Alam has written an engrossing and haunting novel where the fantasy of unplugging becomes a nightmare. Leave The World Behind is a stunning literary thriller closely examining the most basic of human relationships. 

FICTION
Leave the World Behind
By Rumaan Alam
Ecco Press
Published October 6, 2020



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