Review: Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

A white middle class New York family heads into the Long Island woods for summer vacation and the world ends in Rumaan Alam’s gleefully silly and mostly gripping apocalyptic horror-comedy. Parents Amanda, an account director, and Clay, a writer and professor, and children fifteen-year-old Archie and twelve-year-old Rose rent an Airbnb. “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind,” the advert invites, an invite that they may come to wish they’d rejected. They idle away the time, at the beach, lounging by the pool, admiring the pornographic verdure of the woods, and having banal middle class epiphanies like “vacation made you horny” and “vacation was for being returned to your body”.

Alam is having a lot of fun in these early chapters, particularly with his characterisations. Clay is a man who furtively smokes, despite giving it up, in the belief that “smoking was a patriotic act … like killing the Cherokee or keeping slaves”. He wanders around the house admiring the furnishings: “marble countertops and Miele washer and Clay had a full erection”. Amanda is harder to pin down. “She wore her hair neither short nor long … knew that she looked like the sort of woman she was … wrapped her hair into a white towel like a woman in a certain kind of film”, descriptions that make her more cypher than flesh and blood. It’s a problem with all the characters to some extent, making them like those outlines of humans used for target practice. Which turns out to be all they need to be anyway.

Because their middle class ennui is about to be interrupted, with the arrival one night of an older, rich black couple, Ruth and George (!) “G. H.” Washington. “They were four adults standing about awkwardly as in those last anticipatory moments at an orgy,” Alam writes and you can feel his joy in getting away with it. G.H and Ruth insist that they are the owners of the house Amanda and Clay are renting and come bearing ominous news of a blackout in Manhattan. Slowly it becomes clear that something has indeed gone amiss in the world and fear and panic sets in, and they collectively begin to wonder if they are trapped or have successfully evaded some sort of cataclysm.

Like many literary apocalypses, Alam is at first coy about what has actually happened. But gradually something like clarity emerges, unlike, say, Cormac McCarthy’s opaque greyscale nightmare in The Road. It turns out to be rather banal, although I had hopes that it was going somewhere weirder, like Annihilation. In the end Alam chooses a dash of hope and sentiment rather than committing to the dread of the book’s middle section. Still, that stretch is a lot of fun, with a couple of moments of terror, some sublime and wonderful natural phenomena and one instance of decent body horror (a good reminder that it doesn’t take much, just a couple of loose teeth. Haven’t we all had that nightmare?).

In the end the specifics don’t matter all that much, the sins of the West are so multitudinous. Choose your poison: climate change, pollution, global inequality, nuclear arms race. An early chapter in which Amanda shops at a local grocer doubles as enough explanation for what’s to follow, “a plastic box of prewashed spinach, a plastic container of olives, some heirloom tomatoes wrapped in crinkling cellophane, marbled green and shocking orange”. “What if it’s inside us?” Ruth wonders aloud, “She could feel diseases blooming inside her body. It was everywhere, inescapable”. Alam astutely prey on urban white middle class fears: home invasion (by people of colour), loss of phone signal, the meaninglessness of bullshit jobs. It’s curious that the West – and maybe particularly New Yorkers – can better imagine the end of the world than a better one. Perhaps, as the book suggests, New Yorkers feel on particularly shaky ground after the disasters of 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, and of course the Trump Presidency (the book is set in 2019). Apocalypse watcher Mark O’Connell has written of how a certain type of apocalyptic fantasy reflects the same kind of disillusionment with neoliberalism and globalisation that is fueling the rise of populists like Trump, and often comes attached to dreams of a return to the white, hypermasculine frontier.

So there is not really anything on offer for anyone wishing to avoid the end of the world, and although “doomism” is something to genuinely be wary of, Leave The World Behind is a diverting enough scary bedtime story. I’m slightly more convinced by Ling Ma’s apocalypse in Severance, in which a publishing worker stays at work while the world ends, but that’s largely a matter of taste. The writing is propulsive and often grotesque, although I couldn’t get past some obtuse phrases such as “any flamingo, seeing this, would have wanted to incubate their issue” (trust that the flamingo makes sense; but what is incubating an issue?).

Gay rating: 2/5 for some peripheral queer characters.

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