I was reluctant to start reading Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam which we are to discuss next week at book group. I knew it was going to be difficult to read. Sure enough, I felt on the verge of a panic attack through most of the book – even writing about it now is accelerating my heart rate. It is the purpose of good art, I’ve heard, to make us uncomfortable and to challenge us. This book does both. Rather than warning us, it sets down the inevitability of our doom, hence my anxiety.
To put the timing of reading the book into context, we have just commemorated 10 years since the February 2011 earthquake and two years since the mosque shootings. The book reminded me of the quietness that fell over the city in both cases (apart from sirens and helicopters) as if we were all holding our collective breath, alert to danger. The fearful nights. The practised calm we had to show our students in aftershock after aftershock and in the long hours of lockdown. Alam raises the stakes in this book. At least the characters still have electricity and water in their remote and ironically detailed luxurious holiday home with its frivolously stocked refrigerator – symbolic of denial and unpreparedness – although there is a blackout in the city where they usually live, and we are given glimpses of what that implies in a city of high-rise buildings and grid-locked traffic.
The occasional eye of god narrative comment gives some relief from the fearful intensity of the characters who, with no communication from outside, do not have such oversight, and also gives the reader a clue about authorial intent. It would seem that Alam allowed them electricity and water, so that the characters can reveal themselves without falling apart totally, and we can read ourselves into the situation even as onlookers. After this week’s philosophy class on Ideas and Ideology, I can recognise the tendencies, if not types, of the characters in the book: the hedonist, the profit-maximizer, the one needing control – a ‘plan’, and the self-actualizer. There is also raw emotion: fear, love for children who they are powerless to protect, grief for a life which will either end or never be the same again, and the terrible knowledge of their shortcomings. The character Clay, as his name suggests, appears to represent something both elemental and flawed. No superheroes will come to the rescue here.
The book shows how our deepest fears about the future of humanity are well-founded. We are in the middle of a global pandemic of a sort to which we may have to become accustomed. Which will get us first, our casual disregard for our impact on nature (one consequence of which is the increased possibility of cross-over infection from wild animals to humans) or the illogical drive we seem to have to self-destruct with warfare? Or both? In the book, herds of migrating deer stand aloof and look toward the house with accusing stares. In them I can see Greta Thunberg’s “I told you so” look. The two teenage characters don’t seem to have her knowledge or drive. Both are reliant on their digital devices – although one may have more chance of survival, it seems, due to her reading of (dystopian?) fiction.
I am such a scaredy-cat, I won’t be watching the movie which is being made of this book. I haven’t watched a movie for ages, having to vet them carefully first to make sure they won’t freak me out and give me nightmares. Now, I’ve left Leave the World Behind at the library and have stocked up on comforting crime fiction in which solutions are possible and good prevails, and a book from the endlessly positive and life-affirming Anne Tyler. Is this the ‘head-in-the-sand’ behaviour Greta Thunberg warns us about? A futile effort to leave the world behind?
Post-script to this post: After putting myself through the torture of reading the book, I accidentally missed the book group meeting at which it was discussed. The email summing up the discussion came quite quickly and there was no sign of panic or trauma evident in the group’s responses. This puzzles me still, despite having learnt from book group that people can respond to the same book quite differently.
The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (see photo above) was entertaining, with a lot of in-jokes about writers. At one point the detective says to a colleague that he is to shoot her should she ever join a book group. I don’t regret belonging to one, however. Whole worlds have been opened to me by books which I would never have chosen to read otherwise. In Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, the main character reads romance fiction constantly until her circumstances change and she finds herself living in a small town with a largely unfunded library, its unreplenished stock consisting largely of classic novels.