“Leave the World Behind” is a coy little thing: a disaster novel without the disaster. Amanda, an advertising account director; her husband, Clay, a tenured professor and book critic; and their two kids, fifteen-year-old Archie and thirteen-year-old Rosie, have rented an Airbnb among the raspberry fields of rural Long Island. The house is “old but new . . . solid but light,” with a white picket fence, and made of brick, “the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest.” Soon after the novel begins, the family has finished up a long day at the beach, and a late-night knock on the door yanks them out of their reverie. It’s the house’s owners, George, or “G.H.,” and Ruth Washington, who bring news of a blackout across Manhattan—though they think the outage might have spread farther. The two families reluctantly hunker down in the home, which still has power.
Soon more disturbing news arrives, the way it so often does—via Times push notifications. There are vague headlines about the blackout hitting the whole East Coast and a hurricane making landfall. On her phone, Amanda sees “a final ‘Breaking’ followed by nonsensical letters.” Then the Internet blinks out. What is happening? Is there one crisis or a series of them? Over the next few days, Clay notices that the birds are silent. G.H. and Ruth mention that the private planes of their richest neighbors aren’t flying. Rose stands in the backyard and spots a herd of thousands of deer, unnerving in their congregation.
I expected, after all of this, the natural tick-tock of a disaster novel. The invasion or superstorm or missiles would arrive; the characters would run for it; inevitably, some innocent would be sacrificed to the gods who demand such things from novelists. But, although the tension heightens, no such moments arrive. Where other practitioners of the genre revel in chaos—the coarse spectacle of society unraveling—Alam keeps close to his characters, who, like insects in acrylic, remain trapped in a state of suspended unease. This, he suggests, is the modern disaster—the precarity of American life, which leaves us unsure, always, if things can get worse.
Notably, the book’s characters directly grapple with a series of important existential questions: 1. How do you behave in an emergency? 2. What kind of prejudices do you, liberal you, hold quietly in your heart? And 3. What do you do when you’re afraid?
An undeniably skilled writer, Alam leaves us with an indelible image of what it feels like to truly leave the world as we know it behind.
The novel’s six principal characters, all stuck together in a house due to an unknown national crisis, handle these questions in their own ways. Some, like Rose, a 13-year-old girl on vacation with her family, find themselves unexpectedly and innately prepared for hardship; they are resilient, even brave. Others, like Clay, Rose’s father, are forced to confront unpleasant truths: “He couldn’t bear admitting what sort of man he was when tested.”
Leave the World Behind feels right in sync with 2020. If we have learned anything in this calamitous, unrelenting year, it is that catastrophe can be slow to unravel and unexpected when it does. And even when a calamity unfolds, some things still must be attended to, like eating, sleeping, scratching an itch. “Business as usual, the business of being alive.”
Leave the World Behind was written before the coronavirus crisis and yet it taps brilliantly into the feeling of generalized panic that has attached itself to the virus and seems to mingle fears about the climate, inequality, racism, and our over-reliance on technology. As the reader moves through the book, a new voice interjects, an omniscient narrator who begins to allow us gradual access to the terrifying events taking place across America. The book is an interesting type of apocalypse examination because it focuses on what happens to those removed from the action. Rather than fully examining the ramifications of this strange new world, it looks at the scars from the old world — race, class — that must be confronted for these characters to survive in the new. There is a reality that when things fall apart, we want to know why, but this book puts forth the suggestion that the why is irrelevant. What is relevant includes the tiny ways you can reclaim your humanity, even as the gloom of the world presses on your door. Leaving the world behind is an illusion, just like a vacation is an illusion.