Clay and Amanda and Archie and Rose are on vacation, escaping August in Brooklyn for a retreat, found on the Internet, that promises they will “leave the world behind.” Clay is a professor at City College. Amanda is an account director at a marketing firm. Archie, 15, is in the full flush of adolescence, and Rose, 13, is not quite there yet, still a young girl in her parents’ minds.
Married 16 years, Clay and Amanda are hyper-vigilant New Yorkers, acutely aware of the class signs — clothes, cars, schools, neighborhoods — that help them navigate an impossibly complex city. As they drive out past the Long Island suburbs — lower class, working class, middle-middle class, then the nether reaches of the rich — the narrator of their story documents with archaeological precision the litter on the floor of Clay’s car, the accumulated detritus of the age of convenience: oats from granola bars, a subscription insert from the New Yorker, “a twisted tissue, ossified with snot, that wisp of white plastic peeled from the back of a Band-Aid who knew when. Kids were always needing a Band-Aid, pink skin splitting like summer fruit.” It sounds normal, even banal, and it is. It’s also the beginning of one of the saddest and most gripping books you will ever read.
Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” is the story of Normal being stressed, cracked, then demolished forever. Its characters ask questions eerily similar to the ones we ask now: Why is it so hot? Why is it so quiet? Where did the birds go? The answers will change everything.
At first, nothing seems amiss. Their rental is a solid brick house, beautifully remodeled with state-of-the-art appliances, the ocean a breath away. Everything has been preprogrammed for their convenience: “a house that barely needed people.” (Perhaps you are already thinking of a particular Ray Bradbury story.)
They try out the pool. The parents fret about their kids and make love; the kids spin fantasies of adulthood and wonder what’s for dinner. There’s no cell service, but there’s Wi-Fi. Isn’t there? Well, kind of nice to be cut off from everything, isn’t it? Then, at the end of the day, sated with sex and food, pleased with themselves, they hear a knock on the door, and their world begins to tilt.
The visitors are George and Ruth, and they own the place. George is “black, handsome, well-proportioned though maybe a little short, in his 60s, with a warm smile. … He held up his hands in a gesture that was either conciliatory or said Don’t shoot. By his age, black men were adept at this gesture.” His wife, Ruth, is “also black, also of an indeterminate age.” Though they have rented the place to Clay and Amanda for a week, they have unsettling news. There’s been a blackout in New York and, fearing they would get trapped in their apartment building, the Washingtons have decided to retreat to their other home.
Their arrival opens the door to the second movement of the book, in which the couples and the kids adjust to the reality that they are living together. A reader marinated in the racial insecurities of our time might anticipate a dissection of fear and hypocrisy. But Alam turns the conventional scenario on its head. George and Ruth are the sophisticated, wealthy ones; Clay and Amanda are the middle-class arrivistes. Every character is flawed, fragile and believable: Clay, scattered and lazy; Amanda, a maternal over-reactor; George, cool, seasoned, with a dubious faith in numbers; Ruth, defensive and worried for her own child and grandchildren.
The author of two previous novels, “Rich and Pretty” and “That Kind of Mother,” Alam is a specialist in a particular species of affluent white person whose well-tended veneer masks a primal will to survive: “She hated George Washington (what sort of name was that?) and she hated Ruth and she blamed them for bringing the world into this house,” Amanda thinks. But here Alam’s interest is broader and deeper than the selfishness of a particular class. It’s in the workings of a group of people thrown together almost at random, their very existence in jeopardy.
The early signs of catastrophe are subtle: a change in the temperature, a herd of hundreds of deer that stare back at Rose from the lip of a hill. The unsettling quiet is broken by a massive noise that no one can identify. A terrified woman confronts Clay in a foreign language as he tries to find his way to town. Then Archie spikes a fever. These fallible, foolish people, still determined to believe everything is OK, become their better selves, tender with the children and realistic about the importance of getting along. “There was no real structure to prevent chaos, there was only a collective faith in order,” Ruth thinks. With that in mind, the two families grasp at what they hope will be their future.
The third part of the book documents the turn from the present toward that future, and Alam begins to offer glints of How Bad It Really Is (tip: Stay off the elevators in the New York subways). As his characters veer from seizures of panic to intimations of loss, it becomes impossible to put the book down, to look away.
This novel describes with documentary precision the profound irrationality of the way we live — the wretched excess, the obsession with status and wealth, the refusal to face the increasing likelihood of catastrophe in the face of fires and floods, pandemics and weaponized dictators. “They had asked themselves questions when they decided to have children — do we have the money, do we have the space, do we have what it takes — but they didn’t ask what the world would be when their children grew,” Clay thinks.
Alam clarifies the idiotic fact that every tool of human survival — communication, navigation, information — now depends on a complex technological grid that requires a steady supply of electricity. Trying to decipher a flutter of “breaking news” dispatches that have disintegrated into signs and symbols, they can’t even guess at the cause of the break. “Clay didn’t know how the world fit together. Who truly did, though?”
“Leave the World Behind” was written before this year’s pandemic and recession and mass unemployment, before the summer’s catastrophic fires and season of smoke. What might have been a suspenseful and socially realistic piece of dystopian fiction has become something far more resonant, a vision of an entirely plausible future.
In 1957, Nevil Shute published a novel about a group of Australians awaiting the arrival of death by radiation poisoning after the rest of the world had been destroyed. “On the Beach” imagined the sheer horror and bottomless sadness of global destruction; it had a powerful effect on the collective mind of a public beginning to turn against nuclear weapons.
Sometimes it takes a gifted storyteller to make us see what our imaginations cannot grasp. “Leave the World Behind” tells us, with a heart-stopping insistence, that the time to fix what’s broken is now.
Gwinn, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who lives in Seattle, writes about books and authors.