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How Rumaan Alam captured the existential dread of 2020 in one novel

The National Book Award finalist talks to Clémence Michallon about feelings of doom, the revealing power of food, and using Twitter as a writing tool

Thursday 19 November 2020 19:59 GMT
(David A Land)

It’s 4pm on Friday, 6 November 2020, and celebrated author Rumaan Alam, like millions of Americans, is stuck in the post-election twilight zone. Poll workers have been counting ballots for four days. Joe Biden is on a likely path to victory, but the networks have yet to call the election in his favour. Despite the nerves, Alam is doing fine – trying to remember that “all of the uncertainty has to do with a narrative that's being written by power”.

We don’t know it yet, but in less than 24 hours, CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC, and the decisive Associated Press will officially declare Biden president-elect. All we know for now is that something is going to happen to us – something big and uncertain and inescapable.

In that regard, we have a lot in common with the four protagonists of Alam’s third and latest novel, Leave the World Behind. The book is already a sensation in the US, where it was released last month. It has become a National Book Award finalist, earned a much coveted starred review from the authoritative Kirkus Reviews magazine, and has just been announced as a contender for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, next to Louise Erdrich, Brit Bennett, and Brandon Taylor among others. This is on top of abundant praise from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many more. 

Best described as a literary thriller, Leave the World Behind tells the story of Amanda and Clay, a middle-class New York couple who rent a house for the summer on Airbnb. They arrive with their two children, 15-year-old Archie and 13-year-old Rose, to the residence on “a far-off corner of Long Island”. Briefly, they enjoy the vacation they’ve been looking forward to: dips in the pool, homemade meals, the necessary grocery runs. But they’ve barely had time to settle in when the house’s owners, Ruth and her husband GH Washington, show up at the door. There’s been a power outage in New York City, they say, and they need to take refuge in their own, rented, second home.

What follows is a tense, atmospheric, splendidly written attempt to grapple with impending doom. The exact nature of that chaos is explored specifically, yet mysteriously, through an omniscient voice that leaves us with just one truth: something is coming. It’s bad, and there’s no way out.

 “When I was writing the book, I think the nature of that uncertainty was related a lot to the climate,” Alam says. “I think now, a readership situated in 2020 will understand that uncertainty as relating more to our electoral politics, or more to disease. But there's a way in which the operating metaphor of the book is open enough that the reader fills in the blank.”

The plot is oddly suited to the coronavirus pandemic, given that Alam began working on the novel long before Covid-19 came into the picture. He first got the idea for the novel in 2017. Laura Lippman offered to lend him her flat on the Upper West Side for a week-long, homemade writing retreat. It was there that he had his first moment of “clarity” about what would become Leave the World Behind

Even in its infancy, Leave the World Behind was well poised to become the book of an era. For a lot of the novel, Amanda, Clay, Ruth, and GH (whose real name is George Washington, a peculiarity inserted by Alam as a touch of comic relief) look for more information about the mysterious events unfolding around them. Phones are consulted; WiFi is desperately searched for; the TV is kaput. But none of it really matters, because – as Alam points out – “knowing more isn’t really going to save you”.

“We are habituated to this feeling of looking at our phones and waiting for the breaking news alert with the idea that that will give us some information, but it doesn't really ever do that,” he says. “It just gives us one more crumb that never really solves the particular problem.”

Speaking on Skype, Alam is precise in his opinions – conversational but not verbose. He’s a writer’s writer, readily discussing the craft of fiction. He likes to blast through a first draft in just a few weeks, without caring about details or consistency. After that, he can figure out what the “dough” he just made will turn into. The most exciting aspect of his National Book Award nomination? Being put on the same list as Vanessa Veselka, Charles Yu, Megha Majumdar, and Deesha Philyaw.

“It’s like you've been invited to a party or something,” he says with sincere enthusiasm. “Writing is solitude anyway, it's a very solitary pursuit, but especially this year. Everyone feels a little lonely. So to be told, ‘Oh, these are your peers’ was such a great moment for me. I'm so, so happy.”

There’s a touch of that old-school, New-York-writer spirit about Alam. He has ties to the New York magazine industry, currently as a contributing editor at The New Republic and formerly as a special projects editor at The New York Times. He teaches at Pace and Columbia Universities, two New York institutions based in Manhattan. He lives in Brooklyn with his husband and their two children – and yes, they do go to Long Island. 

But there’s also something electrifyingly modern about his work. This is an author who began workshopping Leave the World Behind on a private Twitter account, which helped him find the right voice for the book. Using the platform that way, with the constraint of the 280-character limit, was a liberating “psychological trick”. “People can pathologise their own process and they'll go, ‘I need to have absolute silence. I need to have a desk. I need to have a pencil. I need to have music playing and a cup of tea and all of these things.’ But those ideal conditions don't really work, and you can't overthink that stuff.”

Alam’s characters share our contemporary world, with a 45th US president who “[seems] to have dementia”. “Let’s say something happens in New York City,” GH Washington wonders at one point. “Do you think this president will do the right thing about it?” The novel’s nameless narrator muses in response: “This kind of thing used to sound like paranoia, but now it was just pragmatism.”

Alam’s keen sense of our time is also laid bare in his vivid descriptions of food and grocery purchases. It might sound frivolous, but in his world, those things are anything but: food, he says, is a marker of class. Boxed cake becomes comfort on a rainy vacation day, recycled coffee filters a reflection of the mind of a somewhat conscious, middle-class New Yorker seeking to put her conscience at ease in the grocery aisle. A specific scene in which Amanda shops at a large supermarket escalates into a full-blown inventory of her grocery list. That scene, Alam says, is “so autobiographical”, reflective of his own shopping habits. Later on, when his characters feast on brie and chocolate sandwiches (“It’s a real thing!” he says), they’re using a recipe that came into Alam’s life by way of his own relatives.

Leave the World Behind is a striking, unsettling novel. It’s a story about powerlessness, about scary times, about the illusion of control. Whether those characteristics make it the novel of our time or a timeless one (or both) will depend on the optimism of each reader. 

Leave the World Behind is out at Bloomsbury in the UK, at HarperCollins in the US

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