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The final countdown in slo mo: Anil Menon reviews Rumaan Alam’s ‘Leave the World Behind’

As far as the modern apocalyptic vision is concerned, the world will end neither with fire nor with ice, but with the inability to get online. In Rumaan Alam’s novel, a New Yorker family goes for a week-long vacation at a secluded cottage in rural Long Island. Then the world ends.

Modern love

When they’re not vacationing in other people’s luxury cottages booked via AirBnB, Clay, Amanda and their two kids live in an apartment in Brooklyn. Clay is a professor of English at City College, specialising in media studies and working on a piece for The New York TimesBook Review. Amanda works in advertising. They love each other in the modern manner; that is, with a secular passion and lots of sunscreen.

They’ve barely spent a night in the cottage when there’s a knock at the door. It turns out to be the owners, G.H and his wife Ruth, who awkwardly explain that there’s been some kind of blackout along the entire East Coast, and well, could they wait it out, here in the cottage? It’s awkward, of course, but it is their cottage, and adjustments are made. Have to be made.

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This entire novel, with its 65,000+ words, would be the first 10 minutes of a genre movie. The drive to the house gets a chapter. Entering and surveying it takes another. Of course, most of the (cultivated) pleasure in this kind of novel is that it takes things slow.

On the other hand, Alam’s sentences are action-novel short, usually under 10 words per sentence. This gives scenes and situations a collage-like effect as well as a certain stoic masculinity. One exception is when the author assays Don DeLilloesque lists of American consumerism. A picnic spread cannot be a picnic spread unless we’re given details such as the sunscreen is Shiseido, the picnic blanket is a woollen Hermès, the salt is Maldon, the bottle of olive oil is from Eataly...

Knock, knock

An entire chapter is devoted to Amanda shopping for supplies at a grocery store and 56 items are listed. Or 55, because buns are mentioned twice. This particular list is significant though, not just for future archaeologists, but also as a marker of the impending loss of choice. Amanda doesn’t know it yet, but she’s probably never going shopping again. Shopping is about to come to an end.

The final countdown in slo mo: Anil Menon reviews Rumaan Alam’s ‘Leave the World Behind’
 

This is a closely-observed novel, but the characters never really escape being the author’s puppets. The trouble isn’t that Alam is

not a good writer. The trouble is precisely that he’s a very smart and talented writer. However, his characters, though imagined as decent and intelligent, are basically superficial. They have default responses; they’re sad, angry, happy, worried when they’re expected to be sad, angry, happy, worried. In real life we’d probably be bored by them. So Alam intrudes to give their lives a larger meaning. He’s their David Attenborough, hidden in the undergrowth, commenting on a pair of cavorting moose: now the male is pawing the ground, contemplating a move

Living in denial

For example, at one point, there is a knock on the door. At night. In the middle of nowhere. Naturally, Clay & Amanda are a bit spooked. Of course, that’s not enough. Alam goes on to elaborate: “A knock at the door of this house, where no one knew they were, not even the global positioning system, this house near the ocean but also lost in farmland, this house of red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safest.”

Great stuff, but who’s thinking of little piggy and big bad wolf? Amanda? Nah. She’s spooked and she’s American. She’s thinking home invasion movies: Panic Room. Desperate Hours. The Purge. Clay? Nah. He’s an English lit prof, true. But literature is work for the fellow, not his being. No, these are all Alam’s comments from the undergrowth.

In this apocalyptic novel, the apocalypse happens mostly offstage. Alam’s interest is in the characters, their ordinariness, their denial of reality. The threshold of a century has always had a peculiar hold on the Western imagination. Especially, the millenarian imagination. Norman Cohn in his now classic book, The Pursuit of the Millennium, listed its six characteristics: the event is collective (everybody undergoes it), it is terrestrial (it happens “here”, on Earth), it is imminent (happens in the present), it is inescapably transformative and miraculous (inexplicably powerful forces are involved). But the apocalyptic imagination differs from the millenarian imagination in one important respect: it doesn’t necessarily offer salvation.

I’m not sure how things will go for Americans in an apocalypse. Tocqueville found Americans extraordinarily group-minded and cooperative. But Tocqueville’s America is not Trump’s America. In this novel, Alam sets aside large concerns, large ideas, large strokes and large gestures to focus, closely and carefully, on the small, and the transitory. The result is a thoughtful novel that kept my interest till the end.

Leave the World Behind; Rumaan Alam, Bloomsbury Publishing, ₹599

Author of Half Of What I Say, the writer has a collection of short stories forthcoming from Hachette.

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