A middle-class Brooklyn family of four decamps for a summer vacation in the Hamptons in the opening pages of Rumaan Alam’s third novel, Leave the World Behind (Ecco, Oct. 6). What might be the setup for a domestic comedy of manners abruptly changes course when the owners of the rental property show up and ask to stay the night, claiming there’s been a citywide blackout in New York. So why is the TV showing just a blank blue screen? Why aren’t anyone’s cellphones working? And what in God’s name is the sonic boom that stuns everyone and cracks a glass door? The novel patiently builds an atmosphere of suspense and dread, although—spoiler alert—there will be no simple explanation of what exactly is going on. No matter—Leave the World Behind is a thrillingly unconventional literary page-turner and now the basis for a Netflix film produced by and starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. It was also longlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction. Alam lives in Brooklyn with his husband and sons, ages 7 and 10; we spoke over Zoom while the author and his family were on Fire Island enjoying their own (apparently disaster-free) vacation. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I read your daily diary in Vanity Fair, and it seems like you’ve had a busy pandemic. Besides parenting and making batches of chicken stock, you’re also writing for the New Republic, where you’re a contributing editor. Has it been a productive period for you?
The conditions of quarantine that feel new to a lot of people don’t feel new to me. The nature of my work is solitary and shut in anyway. My productivity has probably gone down a little bit just because the kids are almost always underfoot, you know? At the beginning of the summer we would go to Prospect Park, and I’d set out a blanket and lie down and read—I was reviewing a bunch of books for the fall. And the kids would run around and play. Or I’d put in one AirPod and listen to raw audio [for the Outward and Working podcasts Alam co-hosts for Slate] while the boys rode their bikes. My work is adaptable and flexible enough that if I’m a little clever, I can be more productive.
Though it was conceived and written before the pandemic, the novel feels suited to this moment—a family confronting an ambiguous, unknowable threat out in the world.
I’ve been placing myself in the category—maybe unfairly, without asking them—of what Jenny Offill did in Weather and what Lydia Millet did in A Children’s Bible, also novels that predate this particular moment but share a sensibility, share a way of thinking about the world. Coronavirus is obviously a terrible thing but also a very tangible thing. It has provided a tangible way of talking about a discomfort that I think people have felt for a long time—this feeling of the end of history, or the end of time, or existence in a world that is changing in ways that people simply can’t predict.
When G.H. and Ruth show up—an older, well-heeled Black couple—Amanda can’t shake her suspicions of them.
Amanda is trapped in her own particular point of view [but is] also aware of it and interrogating it even as she’s trapped there. Her first thought is, they’re criminals, and she knows that’s racist. And then she adjusts—well, maybe they’re con artists. I’m a mother, so I have to be concerned about sex crimes. You can understand it as an indictment of her character. But you can also understand it as an indictment of the society; these are the dominant narratives [about Black people]. It’s also a little bit of a trap for the reader.
You’re quite cagey about telling the reader what has caused all the novel’s strange phenomena.
We don’t always know what’s happening in the world. It’s stressful, and it’s unsettling, but it’s just the reality that we inhabit. And sometimes the answers to [our] questions don’t actually provide a sense of closure. The six people in the book don’t know what to do, and there’s no answer that reality could ever provide. Again, coronavirus becomes resonant. We are all waiting for someone to tell us what to do, and clearly that’s not happening. They’re telling us partial information, and we have to navigate on our own.
The family inadvertently forms a social bubble with G.H. and Ruth. And when they try to open the bubble to the local handyman—who they hope will provide answers—he slams the door in their faces.
The heroic individual is such an important part of the American mythology. But I think it is tested in times of crisis, because the resolution to crisis is always collective action, right? We’ve talked about AIDS so much in the era of coronavirus. The problem of HIV was really addressed by collectives of people—often just normal people banding together and collectively accomplishing something, using one person’s money, and one person’s influence, and one person’s sense of theatricality. Americans think of themselves as protagonists of their own story, and that’s the tension in the book—adults who think of themselves as the stars of their own movie suddenly thrust together and having to deal with one another.
Not to mention the kids, who have their own perspectives.
It’s very difficult to write accurately about childhood, because it’s sort of a feral, nonintellectual state that is hard to fix in language, the interiority of a mind that is still developing. Many novels have tried to do it via high style, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha or Nicholson Baker's The Everlasting Story of Nory. The kids in my book are older, which makes it a little simpler, because there is a way in which teenagers are just nascent adults.
Rose, the youngest one in the family, emerges as the closest the narrative has to a heroic presence or an active presence. To me that has to do with, again, the political reality in this moment. I’m talking about young people like the teenagers at Parkland High School who have become anti-gun activists. Or [climate change activist] Greta Thunberg. In many ways, the kids today, the rising generation of my own children, are some of the most interesting political thinkers we have, because they’ve declined to accept a lot of the fundamental ways of thinking that our generation accepted. When I was writing about Rose, I was thinking about that—just the utter liberty of kids to look very, very candidly at the reality of the planet they’re going to inherit.
Now there will be a movie with Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts. That must be surreal.
Your editor and your agent, if you’re lucky, are always going to tell you that the book is good. And you want to believe that, but you understand that this is not impartial stuff that you’re hearing. To have Sam [Esmail, the director] excited about the book felt different, because he is himself an artist engaged in a pursuit not dissimilar from what I’m doing—making a world and a story and hoping that people are moved by it. And to have him say, your book is interesting to me, and I want to do this thing using your book, was just incredible. And then when the conversation was, Julia Roberts might be involved, and Denzel Washington might be involved, well, I don’t even know what you’re talking about anymore. But it’s really wonderful.
Tom Beer is the editor-in-chief.