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The end of it all, unexplained

Book cover for Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam showing a corner of a pool with a diving board at night.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is a compelling apocalyptic novel that’s hard to put down. It begins with a family going on vacation from Brooklyn to a beautiful house they’ve rented in a remote part of Long Island. After a day, there is a knock on the door at night. It is an older Black couple claiming to be the owners of the house. They say that there’s been a blackout in the city and ask if they can stay there until things are resolved. The renters, not sure what to do, reluctantly agree.

From this promising setup, you might think the book would be a close study of these two privileged families put in a difficult situation and left to deal with each other. But Alam has something more in mind than a psychological case study. The TV, internet, and phones are down, so there’s no way for the characters to know what’s happening, but it soon becomes apparent that the blackout is only one of many problems. Nature seems eerily out of whack, technology is failing, and the characters begin to suspect that the whole world may be falling apart. Alam tells the reader in casual asides that a vast societal collapse is indeed in progress, and the novel turns into the story of what two isolated families do at the end of the world as we know it.

This is fascinating to ponder, but the book is ultimately frustrating in its refusal to either reveal exactly what is happening or just not let on about it at all. [Spoilers here] Alam sprinkles in hints about people dying abandoned in elevators and dehydrating in high-rises, about secret military planes in combat, about the environment in rebellion. But he seems less interested in explaining what’s going wrong or analyzing how people react to disaster as he is in simply creating a general sense of dread. The events make little sense—the power and water stay on, for example, even though society is supposed to have fallen apart.[Spoiler end] When Alam does reveal something about what’s happening elsewhere, he does it in casual, offhand authorial intrusions that make it clear he doesn’t really know or care himself. He’s just throwing possibilities against the wall, much like his characters—an omnipresent narrator who simply doesn’t care to explain.

When I was in high school, I loved the band Oingo Boingo. It struck me that Leave the World Behind is essentially a prose version of their song “Nothing to Fear,” which lists nuclear war and other dangers but then sardonically proclaims in the chorus, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.” Alam unites two families, one Black and one White, then undermines our expectations, which would reasonably be a close examination of their preconceptions. Instead they’re presented as part of the same problem—wealthy, insulated, and naive, they’re complicit in the global social and environmental injustices that we’re all ignoring to our own detriment. What this novel does do very well is capture our contemporary sense of dread—a worldwide phenomenon, whether justified or not—our sense that things just aren’t going right in the world and will somehow, inevitably destroy this thin facade of civilized society that we’ve built.

The problem with this approach is that while it makes for a nice song or poem, and might even make a great short story, it’s a bit thin to hold up a novel. Readers want explanations. We want someone to point a way out for us. We know the world is in shambles but not what to do about it. We want deeper characters that can figure out what’s going on and how to make things right. Or, if that’s not where the author’s interest is, at least continue the story long enough to show what happens to the characters. Yes, I know it’s up to us whether we continue on this destructive path, but the book ends on as shallow a note as it’s sounded throughout, with no answers but an indictment of us all. In the end, it’s a call to wake up but with no prescription for what to do or even where to start. We’re all doomed, period, end of story. Granted, the novel was thought-provoking in a kind of teenage angsty way, but in the end it left me feeling empty and awfully depressed.