I spoke with Rumaan Alam on the same day that his third novel, Leave the World Behind, made the shortlist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction. The dark — and darkly funny — story of how an upper-middle-class white family from Brooklyn and a wealthy Black couple from the Upper East Side cope with the possible end of humanity, while accidentally sharing a vacation home, Leave the World Behind uses the tropes of horror to explore the real effects of race, class, and technology on relationships and survival. Chillingly plausible, critical, and generous, Leave the World Behind is a gripping combination of can’t-put-it-down thriller and a meticulous excavation of the ways adults perpetually succeed and fail in creating a just and stable world. It’s a delight to present Alam’s riveting novel as Volume 89 of Indiespensable.
Rhianna Walton: I read Leave the World Behind during an especially bad wildfire season in Oregon that kept us housebound, and that coincided with ongoing COVID-19 restrictions, political violence downtown, a windstorm, and a blackout. It made me second-guess calling the novel dystopian because that implies future doom… How do you classify the novel, and has the way you think of it shifted between the writing of it and the current American moment?
Rumaan Alam: It’s a great question. Did you ever read that Kathryn Schulz piece in the New Yorker about the Big One?
Rhianna: I read part of it and then I thought, I can’t.
Alam: It’s actually too scary. Dystopian as a way of categorizing fiction has more to do with the reader’s discomfort for what’s being presented than it does with defining an actual category of literature. It’s a way of holding it further away from us.
Think about Station Eleven and the way that Emily St. John Mandel is writing about a flu; and then think about what our contemporary reality is. Or, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam and Oryx and Crake, which is such an extraordinary trilogy — it feels distant because we see it through the lens of genre.
It’s just an illusion. Margaret Atwood is writing realism. And Emily St. John Mandel is writing realism.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read Jane Smiley’s The Last Hundred Years Trilogy. It covers 100 years of an American family’s life, from 1920 to 2020. In 2020, she describes a region of this country as being on fire.
Is that dystopian or is that just real? I don’t think I ever thought of Leave the World Behind as engaged in whatever we want to call dystopian. I always thought of it as realism.
I’m conscious of the fact that it’s using the tropes and conventions of the thriller or horror. It’s dipping into what we have seen as various genre conventions to tell us something about reality.
Rhianna: It’s not just the outside elements of disaster — the blackout, the warfare, the weird animal migrations — that feel eerily relevant. The characters and the narrator are also hyper-aware of the age, gender, and racial stereotypes at play in human interactions in 2020, and often think about the ways they’re deviating from social expectations. I’m thinking, for example, of how Amanda tries to compensate for racist thoughts with carefully constructed, progressive counter-thoughts, but they all do it. It’s very funny, but it’s also very now, the way your characters struggle with the disconnect between their private thoughts and how they wish to present, or feel they need to present, outwardly.
Alam: [Laughs] Thank you. First of all, I am especially thrilled when people sense humor at play in this book. I wanted it to feel funny. It does feel funny to me. I don’t know if readers are always having the experience of laughing, in some ways because I think readers are conditioned to seeking permission to laugh. Especially, an uncomfortable laugh can feel like, Am I supposed to recognize this and find it funny?
A lot of it is very comic by design. I’m pleased whenever readers have that same feeling.
In terms of that distance that you’re describing between what you think you’re presenting about yourself and what you know is inside of yourself, this feels very human to me.
When Barack Obama was running for office in 2008, I feel like he used to tell this story on the stump about how his own grandmother was the kind of person who would hold her purse more tightly if she passed a Black man, conditioned by all of society to fear blackness and understand it only through the lens of crime, and that he himself, as a beloved grandson who was Black, could not disrupt that.
It’s OK to acknowledge that many of our attitudes are very deep inside of us and have come from an overwhelming immersion in a culture that we didn’t design, and that the only hope we can have toward real progress is to look at that stuff and where you come up short and be willing to have that uncomfortable laugh or whatever it is.
I don’t know if this is a moment of reckoning, but I do think it’s an opportunity for introspection at least.
Rhianna: The novel explores that process really effectively. At the same time that the reader is criticizing or laughing at the characters, they’re thrust into sympathizing with them too, because the characters’ biases illuminate the reader’s own.
The six people inside of this house represent all of us.
Alam: The book gives you every feeling that when the Black people arrive at the home possessed by white people, something bad is going to happen.
They’re going to commit a crime. They’re there to trick these people. There’s something nefarious in them. The book establishes that and tells you that you’re right to be on your guard, just as Amanda is on her guard.
When she says, “They don’t look like the kind of people who could own a house this nice. They could clean it. They do maybe look like a maid and a handyman,” the reader is supposed to recoil, but also think, Well, maybe she’s right. Maybe this is a scam.
The narrative could have done that. It doesn’t. It’s more interesting for the fact that it destabilizes you twice. It makes you feel that you’re in Amanda’s same boat. Then it abandons that. It changes the direction. It’s an act of misdirection in which the reader is implicated as well as the characters.
That’s speaking to a reader of every race. There’s no reason a Black reader wouldn’t have exactly that same experience of thinking these people have come to commit a crime. The book suggests that’s what’s happening, but it’s not what’s happening, you know?
Rhianna: I think we’re conditioned that way socially now, as well. How we engage with people is so mediated that someone coming to your door, whom you don’t know, especially in these circumstances, is automatically going to put you on your guard. Then you add in the racial element and it just gets more complicated.
Alam: Also, that conditioning is coming not just from our political consciousness or how we were raised. You could have been raised in the most politically enlightened circumstances. You could be a Black person. You would have a completely different perspective on how race functions in the country, but we’re also raised by the culture itself.
You are groomed by television to always understand white people as the protagonists of the story. That’s just how it works. That’s how the culture functions. It’s hard to bear too much individual responsibility for that because you did not, at age six, when you were first watching sitcoms, make those sitcoms. You can’t help what you’ve been educated in.
Rhianna: One of the things that I found super interesting when thinking about how perspective functions in the novel is the omniscient narrator.
I don’t think I’ve encountered anyone like them before — they take such an active role in the narrative. It can be difficult to determine where the characters’ thoughts end and where the narrator’s commentary on the content and quality of those thoughts begins. How did you develop this narrative voice, and what do you feel it allows you to explore in the novel?
Alam: I have a couple of different thoughts on this. One is that I love a trope of cinema in particular where people are speaking over one another. One person is saying one thing, that person is saying another thing. They don’t quite finish their thoughts. They shift the nature of the conversation. Unfortunately, the best example of this is a filmmaker who is very complex to talk about: Woody Allen. Woody Allen’s films do capture a sense, I think, of how conversation unfolds at a dining table. It feels very real to me when you see that in films.
That is really fascinating to me, where you can’t always determine who is saying what or why they’re saying what. It’s just something I love doing in books. I really enjoy that challenge as a reader.
I think it approximates how reality works a little. There’s a lot of conversation in this book. In some ways, the reader inhabits the same space as the characters, this place of really not knowing what’s happening.
Several early readers described the book to me as theatrical, which I think is very interesting. That it feels like you’re watching a dramatic presentation of characters on a stage, and there’s this intimate thing where you’re watching it and you’re trying to figure out what’s happening yourself.
I had three editors on this book, and I can’t remember which editor said this. At some point, one of the editors said to me, “Even if the characters don’t know something, the reader needs to know more,” which is a really interesting observation.
I had to figure out how to make sure the reader knew what was happening, even if the characters are debating their inability to comprehend what’s happening. The way that I accomplished that is by introducing a larger narrative voice, which you’ve identified.
To me, that narrator is like God, basically. It feels like something you would read in a 19th-century novel. It does not feel especially contemporary. Most of the great novels that I have read in the last 10 years have been written from a very, very tight third person that you almost understand as a first person. If you think about Ben Lerner‘s or Rachel Cusk’s books, it’s a very psychologically penetrating perspective, like the “she” is actually just an “I.”
That’s how my first two books are written, where the perspective is so close to the characters that it basically is inside of them, even though it’s pulled back just enough so that it’s referring to them as players on a page.
This book is totally different. The power dynamic is completely different, where six people all exist on the page, and God can go into their minds and tell you exactly what’s happening. God can also provide some context on what’s happening that they don’t know.
I had a lot of fun with that. When the book says, “Later”; when the book implies an intelligence among the trees; when it implies a cause-and-effect relationship between an insect bite and what happens next. It just drops these things and moves on. They’re not the focus of the story. When the book tells you a plane crashed, and then this television star died, and then this man died on the subway, it turns the reader into Sherlock Holmes.
You’re trying to piece it together and make it make sense. Ultimately, it doesn’t make sense. You cannot make sense of it, because you are still in the same place as those characters. If those characters knew all that information, it would not help them. There’s no takeaway, because they still don’t know what’s happening, and neither does the reader.
If anything is going to save us, it’s probably going to be one another.
Rhianna: As I was reading, I sometimes got the impression of being the narrator’s co-conspirator — someone with enough critical distance to judge the characters — but at the same time, that insight just deepened my identification with them, and made their worries and dread feel that much more real and possible within my own life. It was a pretty extraordinary experience.
Alam: That’s lovely. That’s what I want. I want you to feel like they’re real people whom you see wholly, as much as one ever can with a fictional construct; but that you can also understand them as cogs in a fictional machine that’s having a particular effect on you.
It’s not a postmodern joke, the way that those great stories by Barthelme possess a sense of their own fiction. The strategy here is more that you have to feel that these people are real, even if you understand that the story is pretend and it’s trying to get you to feel a certain way.
There has to be that sense of verisimilitude. You have to feel like, What if this happened to me?
Hopefully, that is part of the reading experience for people.
Rhianna: That experience of verisimilitude really hit home for me when the novel delves into the experiences of childhood and parenting during a crisis.
There’s a wonderful line in the novel where you talk about the “private conspiracy of childhood,” which is just one of many astute observations about how children see the world and their families. I was really taken with how you conjure the atmosphere of childhood — the smells, the tactile sensations, the vision that kids have, because I think that’s really difficult to do well. I’d love to hear about why children were key to writing this story for you, and how you approach writing from a child’s or a teenager’s perspective.
Alam: I think a couple things. First of all, parenthood is an important part of my life, and it is the perspective through which I see things artistically.
That said, it’s so hard to talk about with this book. It’s an important point of access for me for the book, but my hope is that it’s a book that yields to a reader who isn’t a parent — that the reader can understand that they’re wired to care about what’s going to happen to the future of the species.
I think kids are really hard to write about, actually. To be a kid is to be a little illogical. Often what happens is writers try to do something really stylized to communicate that particular disconnect of logic. Style helps readers understand the psychology.
In this book, I think the attention to style is the same throughout the book. What changes are the details and the perspective. I think [the children’s sections] feel a little heightened, and frankly, a little magical. I almost wrote about them the way that I write about the animals in the book.
I had much easier access to the adult psychology. The kids’ psychology felt a little more unknowable to me, and so I reduced them almost to animals, like when Archie thinks about sex. He thinks about it in a very animal way. It’s just his wiring. Rose is a little younger, and at the end of the book, almost seems to be following some instinct that wouldn’t have made any sense to the adults.
That feels to me like what childhood is. You’re guided by some kind of animal instinct, and you haven’t learned entirely how to tamp that down.
Rhianna: I’m thinking of my youngest child now and the weird things she does, like dipping her hair in her milk.
Alam: The other day, my eight-year-old was in the backyard, and I was watching him through the kitchen window. I saw him get down on his knees and lick the grass. He was like, I just needed to know.
Kids are… there’s something weird about them that’s very hard to fix in language.
Rhianna: I love the way you capture them in the novel. Rose and Archie are magical and mystical in their outlook, which is a nice counter to what the adults are experiencing.
Clay has this great quote where he reflects: “It was a hell of a thing to not be able to keep your kid safe. Was this how everyone felt? Was this, finally, what it was to be a human?” Parenting intensifies the trauma of what’s happening by reinforcing the adults’ fragility and ineptitude to keep their kids safe.
Alam: That’s the fundamental betrayal of the parent. You can’t assure children that they’re never going to hurt themselves on the playground. You can’t assure them that they will never have hurt feelings at school. It’s all you want to do. You just can’t do it.
People’s kids get sick. It’s so terrifying because there’s nothing you’re able to do. It’s not a question of morality. It’s a question of terrible, terrible luck.
That’s the bargain. That’s the risk that you take when you care about somebody else. My point of access into that is parenthood. It doesn’t have to be. It could be childhood. You can’t protect your parents either.
It’s a risk of being a human being. It’s maddening and crazy to think about. We all know that that’s the risk. We all know it. We can’t dwell on it because we’d lose our minds.
Rhianna: In a review of one of your earlier novels, That Kind of Mother, Atlantic critic Hannah Giorgis writes that one of the book’s chief concerns is: “What obligations do people — strangers, friends, colleagues — have to one another? Can love ever transcend the strata of race, class, and entitlement?” As we’ve been discussing, these ideas definitely carry over into this novel, perhaps most clearly in the character of Ruth, who repeatedly returns to the idea that “to care for other people felt something close to resistance.” What is it about the idea of love transcending difference that attracts you as a writer, and how did writing a novel with dystopian or disaster elements change the way you explore it?
That narrator is like God, basically.
Alam: Ruth is a softie, isn’t she? In the end, she’s holding onto something about reality that we have to hold onto in moments of urgency: We understand that our role as a human being is to care for others.
The implication in this book is that the six people inside of this house represent all of us. It’s a way of thinking about how the whole world is going to deal with whatever’s happening outside. Maybe that makes it more imperative to talk about love or to hold onto it. The stakes are so much higher.
This is a dark book. I have to have some kind of hope. If anything is going to save us, it’s probably going to be one another.
The implication in this book is that young people might. That reflects my own political perspective that the most interesting generation, the most interesting people I know politically, are young people for whom progressivism is not a political stance but a grounding in reality.
Our kids’ generation, they’re amazing. They have a kind of grasp of what is happening in the world that I don’t think their parents do.
Rhianna: I agree. One of the things that makes reading this book so terrifying is that you’ve got these wonderful young voices, and you worry that they’re not going to make it.
Alam: As George says, men of his generation have messed a lot of things up. This is a story that masquerades as dystopian or thriller or horror, but fundamentally, this is a very realistic book.
Rhianna: Nothing in this novel felt far away. Everything the characters are grappling with internally and externally is totally possible and seems to be happening in some form in the U.S. or across the globe.
Alam: I don’t know if this happened to you in Oregon in March, but [on the East Coast], what did we do when we heard the schools were going to be closed, etc.? We went shopping. We bought the things that we thought would comfort us and that we needed: coffee, coffee filters, dried beans, whatever it was.
The things that we bought tell us a story of who we think we are. A certain kind of person bought Rancho Gordo beans. A certain kind of person bought Cup of Soup. You know what I mean? It’s a reflection of where you see yourself or how you are situated in the class hierarchy. It affirms that the only way that we have to identify ourselves in this culture is via the things that we buy.
Rhianna: That’s actually something I wanted to ask you about.
Materialism and the idea of safety as a luxury are dominant themes in the novel, with the vacation home and its many amenities serving as a metaphor or even synecdoche of these ideas. I was especially intrigued by the dissonance between the novel’s insistence that stuff doesn’t equal safety or survival, and how the house serves as an oasis — even at the end, when as far as we know, the whole eastern seaboard is dead or dying, the electricity is still on, there’s water and food… Why did you decide to keep these basic comforts intact?
Alam: In part, it’s because you know by that point what an illusion it is. They still have power. It feels like a glitch, but whatever. You know that George has that closet full of dried pasta downstairs.
They’re going to eat all that food. It will be gone someday. Then, where are you? It’s more interesting to me that they know they’re going to be out of food. Clay’s out of cigarettes, isn’t he? What’s that going to be like? They have electricity but they don’t have television, which is all they want. All they want is the Internet. All they want is information.
The electricity, in a weird way, doesn’t provide anything. It just makes it bright at night. It lays bare that these are all illusions. That’s something we all do all the time. We all put a lot of faith in these things even though we know it’s an illusion. The forces of global climate change will not affect people who can get onto superyachts, right?
You’re talking about David Geffen and five other people. You’re not talking about all of us. You could be really, really rich and not be able to access that. It’s coming for us no matter what. We can pretend. We can do this thing that has happened in this country by bad-faith political actors and discuss it as a matter of belief. It’s not a matter of belief.
The planet does not care if we believe in it or not. It’s coming. It’s already coming for people who have nothing. That’s the particular unfairness of it.
Rhianna: This is making me think about that moment Clay has with the woman on the side of the road, which felt significant both in terms of his character and the reader’s sense of how society has already broken down.
Alam: Yes. In part because it’s the first time we are out of the vacation home and it’s the first time we encounter a different person. That person can’t speak the same language, which is interesting. It is such a significant moral failing on Clay’s part. We all want to believe that we would do something differently in that situation.
If you were in a place in a moment of crisis and somebody was appealing to you for help, even if you didn’t understand the language they were speaking, you would want to calm yourself down and think, OK, how are we going to proceed? What are we going to do? What should he have done? Should he have let this person into his car?
What’s uncomfortable about that to me is that you get to look at him and say, You’re bad. Hopefully, you also get to engage in the thought exercise of, What would I do?
One of the kindest things anyone’s said to me about this book is, “This book is an indictment,” which is such a beautiful way of thinking about it. It’s hard not to see yourself in this book and hard not to imagine how you would respond and what the limits of your own humanity are.
Rhianna: I read that you’re an avid cook, and I really enjoyed the role food plays in the novel, in part because food is usually so central to vacation, but also because it both highlights the differences between the characters and brings them together.
How did food find its way into the heart of Leave the World Behind?
Alam: You’re right that it’s an essential part of the vacation experience. It’s an essential part of this deranged convivial experience that these people are having.
In a weird way, they’re having an extended dinner party. I thought a lot about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which a party goes on for too long and reveals some crazy amorphous menace. It’s because that’s what people do. We are just animals. We eat.
What they do in Leave the World Behind is they eat, and they have sex. Those are the only things that actually happen in the book. Which is, I think, what happens on a great vacation, and it’s also just animal human survival stuff.
I love writing about food. Food is such a sensual pleasure, a satisfying pleasure. When my older son was a baby, I had a friend who said, “You have to teach your children how to eat because eating is one of life’s great pleasures. What a gift to care about eating.” I really think that’s true.
It’s like when Ruth talks about Tchaikovsky in the book. Art provides meaning for some people, and food can provide that for others.
I love imagining, as Amanda does [when making the pasta], Someday my kids will come home from college, and they’ll be like, “Dad, can you make that thing with the butter?” I find that really lovely to imagine.
Rhianna: Yes, because food is a way of loving, and sometimes it’s hard to know the right way to love your children. Also, it implies continuity.
Alam: Yes. Stability.
I think, like you’re suggesting, you put yourself through all of that stuff. It becomes a physical expression of care, of comfort, security.
That’s very meaningful. I mean, everybody needs to eat. It’s a human imperative. The fact that there are people in this country who can’t or don’t is our moral failing.
Every parent wants to be able to provide their children with what they need. There’s no parent alive who doesn’t want to do that. To be able to do that well, whether it’s making a box of macaroni and cheese or whipping up something complicated from scratch, it’s like that act contains something.
In a way, we have very little at our disposal to hold these acts. You know what I mean? Food is just one of the things that we have to literalize our feelings.
I spoke with Rumaan Alam by Zoom on Tuesday, October 6, 2020.
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Rumaan Alam is the author of Leave the World Behind, Rich and Pretty, and That Kind of Mother. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. He studied at Oberlin College, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.