In classic stories about apocalyptic events, from H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds” to George Romero’s prototype zombie film “Night of the Living Dead,” the onset of end times finds characters scrambling for survival, seeking loved ones and facing their devastating losses of normalcy with raw instincts and resourcefulness.
In Rumaan Alam’s third novel, “Leave the World Behind,” four adults awkwardly cohabitating in a remote Airbnb rental house in the Hamptons are reduced to chattering ninnies as it becomes clear something unknown but terrible has happened in the larger world.
The premise holds delicious satirical potential, especially since Alam, author of “Rich and Pretty” and “That Kind of Mother,” slides sideways into it after a neat bit of racially charged sleight of hand. Readers will think they know where Alam is headed narratively when an affluent Black couple in their 60s, G.H. and Ruth, sheepishly turn up very late one night at the door of the Hamptons house, where a vacationing white family — Amanda, Clay and their two teenage kids — has been luxuriating in creature comforts, plenty of food and no cellular service.
G.H., a private equity financier, and Ruth, an administrator at an elite school, claim to own the place. They explain that an unnerving blackout in Manhattan sent them scurrying for refuge in their getaway home. Clay, a media professor, and Amanda, an account director, are overcome with paranoia concerning these interlopers. Alam smoothly describes G.H. and Ruth’s deft handling of a potentially explosive situation, while they also make clear they intend to stay.
“‘It’s up to you.’ G.H knew how to persuade someone,” Alam writes of the arrival. “‘Of course. We would be very grateful. We could show you how grateful we are. Then, tomorrow, we’ll know a little more. …’ He did not commit to leaving, which was important.”
For a while, we’re in a story about strangers in uncharted territory of racial suspicion and improvised social manners, a situation sharpened by the disturbing report of a blackout and the sudden cutoff of television and the internet. But about halfway through the tale, disastrous and inexplicable events turn “Leave the World Behind” into a claustrophobic drama-comedy about capable people turning inward from fear, stuck in tight loops of useless conjecture and indecision, regressing into near-feral primitiveness.
It’s quite a ride, but the bubble setting in which bad goes to worse also becomes a trap that Alam fails to infuse with congruent ideas. In the book’s opening scene, it’s easy to get the sense “Leave the World Behind” is going to be powered by frenetic, almost smug observations of the flotsam of middle-class family life.
“The car was Clay’s domain, and he was lax enough that it accrued the talus of oats from granola bars bought in bulk, the unexplained tube sock, a subscription insert from the New Yorker, a twisted tissue … that wisp of white plastic peeled from the back of a Band-Aid who knew when.”
OK, one thinks, we’ll see whether this granular focus on stuff tells us something essentially human about these characters. But it doesn’t. Nor does incessant, increasingly irritating and, frankly, lazy dialogue in the book’s latter half, in which there seems little for anyone to say beyond variations on “If we only knew what was happening” and “Should we leave or stay?” Nothing would have been sacrificed in Alam’s group portrait of panicky cluelessness by adding a little dimension to the principals.
There are many times Alam doesn’t really tell a story so much as review the one in his head. A pivotal moment in which a massive and unnatural explosion occurs loses its edge because the author goes meta in the scene.
“She was sitting there, not doing anything more, when it happened, when there was something. A noise, but that didn’t cover it. Noise was an insufficient noun, or maybe noise was always impossible to describe in words. What was music but noise; could words get at Beethoven?”
Similarly, there are times when a reader’s encounter with a character is less like revelation than scanning Alam’s mental notes on that person.
Along with these tendencies to circle some events and characters rather than describe them, Alam’s intimate if queasy approach to accelerated, crisis-driven appetites of every kind, as well as sexual and other bodily functions, is excessive without reward. Is it really necessary to read a description of the hydraulics of a masturbating teenage boy’s penile discharge?
Yet there are a number of moments of startling grace, such as near-Biblical signs that animals know the new, dystopian score better than people do. There are expressions of heartbreaking human helplessness, such as the ever-confident G.H.’s fruitless certainty he will eventually see how markets predicted what might be the end of the world.
It’s at those times — individuals clinging to their private life rafts of suddenly irrelevant experience — when “Leave the World Behind” is at its most haunting.
“Leave the World Behind” by Rumaan Alam, Ecco, 256 pp., $27.99