Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind is a slippery and duplicitous marvel of a novel. When, deep into the night, a vacationing couple hears a knock at the door of their remote Airbnb rental in the Hamptons, as a reader you think, “Oh, this is a suspense story.” Then, when that couple, who are white, opens the door to a couple outside who are Black and conversational awkwardness ensues, you think, “Oh, this is a comedy of manners about race, a kind of edgy riff on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”
Both impressions are correct: Leave the World Behind simultaneously continues to be a thriller and a deft comedy of manners; but, very slowly a different kind of story creeps in and takes over.
We readers, like that vacationing couple, dismiss the signs at first: We’re lulled by that pool and hot tub and those burgers on the grill. Ultimately, though, the evidence can’t be denied: Instead of a literary “beach novel” we’ve landed in an up-to-the-minute version of On The Beach, Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel that used to be required high school reading about a looming apocalypse.
As so many novels do, Leave the World Behind begins with a journey: Our vacationers, Amanda and Clay, are on the Long Island Expressway driving out to the Hamptons with their two teenage kids in tow. Clay is a tenured professor of media studies (even Amanda acknowledges at one point that she doesn’t really know what “media studies” signifies). Amanda is an account director, a job which, she confesses, largely means the daily “sending of emails assessing the job itself.” They’re a securely middle class, white, liberal couple, which means they’re the quintessential soft target for satire and Alam merrily proceeds to peel away their self-delusions in this opening section of the novel.
His wit takes on an explicitly socially conscious dimension when that Black couple in their 60s knocks at the door late on the second night of the family’s vacation stay. Alam describes George, who goes by his initials G.H., standing, holding “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.” Ruth, G.H.’s wife, “looked like the kind of woman you’d see in a television ad for an osteoporosis medication.”
Nevertheless, Amanda, in particular, is suspicious about the couple’s claim of being the owners of the house and to be seeking shelter because of a massive blackout that’s blanketed the Northeast. Cell phones and satellite TV service are out, so there’s no way to check their story.
Amanda lowered her voice still more. “What if he’s the handyman? What if she’s the maid? What if this is just a scam, and the blackout or whatever is just a coincidence?” She was at least appropriately ashamed by her conjecture. But those people didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house. They might, though, clean it.
Readers are slyly encouraged by Alam to share Amanda’s hesitations: Even to themselves, G.H. and Ruth sometimes seem to be performing their parts. At a later point in the novel, G.H. chuckles at something Clay says and G.H. thinks to himself: “It was hard not to assume the role of genial sitcom neighbor. Television created the context, and black people had to play along.” If you’re a white reader, however, who’s wondering whether this Black couple are who they say they are, you ultimately realize this novel has lured you into confronting your own racist biases.
The rising panicky dismay that floods the world of Alam’s novel is something readers should experience for themselves in real time, so I’ll stop talking about the storyline. But, I do want to emphasize Alam’s rare achievement as a writer. Most novels are fairly easy to categorize: They start off following the rules of a particular genre — domestic fiction, hardboiled mystery, dystopian fantasy, whatever — and they pretty much roll along adhering to or sometimes subverting those conventions.
What Alam does in this novel, this particular house of fiction, is to quietly remove the retaining walls he’s erected in the first third of the story, so that by the end readers step out into the terror of empty space without understanding how that happened. Leave the World Behind is atmospheric and prescient: Its rhythms of comedy alternating with shock and despair mimic so much of the rhythms of life right now. That’s more than enough to make it a signature novel for this blasted year.