“Are you actually a woman?” the magazine editor Chloe Schama asked Rumaan Alam a few years ago during an interview for Vogue. Her joke reflected her incredulity at his first two novels, which concern themselves exclusively with the circumstances of women’s lives. Rich and Pretty (2016), his debut, chronicles the friendship between Sarah and Lauren, two upper-middle-class white women, from high school through college, first jobs, marriage and baby (for one), and career (for the other). Rebecca, the white protagonist of his second novel, That Kind of Mother (2018), struggles through her own pregnancy and early motherhood before abruptly adopting the son of her Black nanny, who dies during childbirth. How, Schama wondered, could someone who “didn’t look a lot like his protagonists” write with “the delicately dishy intimacy that we usually associate with fiction written by women”?
Alam tends to respond to this kind of question by referring to the many novelists who have written across the “divide of gender,” such as Norman Rush, Jonathan Franzen, Thomas Hardy, even Tolstoy. “It’s the challenge of the writer of fiction to inhabit or animate other people,” he has said. But whereas such novelists have traditionally devoted themselves to creating characters as rich and multifaceted as possible—think of the fantastically intelligent and idiosyncratic female anthropologist who narrates Rush’s Mating—Alam concentrates on examining his characters’ surfaces rather than excavating their depths. In Rich and Pretty, he focuses dispassionately and exactingly on Sarah’s and Lauren’s irritating conversational tics (“My folks? Um. They’re fine”), their microaggressions (Lauren, at the nail salon, reflects on the “penitent Korean woman” trimming her cuticles), their vanities (“She’s the second-prettiest woman in the office”). If the friendship has a more profound element, it isn’t explored.
This technique is all the more striking in That Kind of Mother, in which the subject matter is much more fraught. Rebecca is drawn as a personification of white privilege: she lives in a fashionable house in a suburb of Washington, D.C., and writes poetry for a living, supported by her diplomat husband. “This is what I want,” she tells him when she decides unilaterally to adopt her nanny’s baby, and “she always got what she wanted.” Another novelist might have used this setup to encourage his character to gain perspective on her blinkered attitudes, to become more sensitive, to appreciate the world outside her own head. This is not Alam’s way. Aside from a few flickering thoughts about race—she marvels at the thickness of the baby’s hair; later, she worries, almost idly, that he may become a target of racial profiling—Rebecca continues more or less as she was. “That Kind of Mother offers a blueprint for how not to be a white mother of a black child,” the writer and radio producer Rebecca Carroll wrote in a review in the Los Angeles Times, lamenting that her own adoptive white mother had been similarly ignorant and unquestioning.
We are primed to expect fictional characters to change, often for the better. But for Alam, who writes about his characters as if he were a medical student dissecting a cadaver, psychological depth is not the point. He has an interior barometer exquisitely calibrated to signifiers of social class: fashion houses, just-trendy-enough restaurants, interiors detailed with the loving eye of a copywriter for a high-end furniture catalog. His interest lies in taxonomies of race and class, not in generating the reader’s empathy or evoking an emotional response. Lacking the capacity for deep reflection, his characters drift along in their bubbles, so perfectly self-absorbed that the other people in their lives are all but invisible, except to the extent that they function as projections. “Sometimes, thinking too deeply is a mistake, is a trap,” Sarah tells herself, dismissing her own concerns about postpartum depression. “Sometimes it’s best just to do.” With chapters often only three or four pages long and tending to cut away just as a scene starts to get complicated, the effect is disconcerting, destabilizing. But it is also necessarily limited. Tensions are left unexplored; paths for development are foreclosed.
Both the advantages and disadvantages of this approach are evident in Leave the World Behind, Alam’s third novel, which is an odd hybrid of thriller and social satire. Part of the difficulty in determining its form comes from the fact that the book has been released into an utterly different world than the one in which it was written: certainly the setup—a family forced to isolate with strangers in the face of an unfolding global disaster—is no longer as far-fetched as it might once have seemed. Now that we are living through a pandemic, some of what Alam may have conceived as science fiction or even horror reads almost like realism. Indeed, many readers have delighted in pointing out connections between the book’s plot and our current circumstances.
Though the year is not specified, the book seems to take place during the Trump administration. Amanda and Clay, a peacefully if not ecstatically married white Brooklyn couple in their forties, are heading out on vacation with their two children, fifteen-year-old Archie and his younger sister, Rose, who seems to be about twelve or thirteen. With his characteristic attention to detail, Alam immediately situates the reader in their world:
Their gray car was a bell jar, a microclimate: air conditioning, the funk of adolescence (sweat, feet, sebum), Amanda’s French shampoo…the talus of oats from granola bars bought in bulk, the unexplained tube sock, a subscription insert from the New Yorker, a twisted tissue, ossified with snot, that wisp of white plastic peeled from the back of a Band-Aid who knows when.
There’s some overreaching here—“talus,” which means rock debris (I had to look it up), seems a bit too much for granola-bar crumbs. But there can be little doubt that the novelist, who often tweets about his own family and their life in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, is writing what he knows.
The couple belongs to an all-too-relatable category of middle-class strivers who are not as upwardly mobile as they would like to be. She works at an ad agency, but not a fancy one; he’s a professor of English at City College: “Clay had tenure, and Amanda had the title of director, but they did not have level floors and central air-conditioning.” They live in Carroll Gardens, but Amanda prefers to say Cobble Hill—one of the many inside jokes that will make Alam’s fellow Brooklynites, myself included, chuckle or wince in recognition. Their car is “a practical model,” common enough that Clay confuses it for other people’s in parking lots, with tinted windows “to keep cancer at bay”; their beach blanket, “found on the internet, block-printed by illiterate Indian villagers.” The family is on their way to a rented house on a part of Long Island less fashionable than the Hamptons: “The actual rich lived in some other realm, like Narnia.”
That line, which channels Amanda’s thoughts without actually invoking them, demonstrates how firmly the novel’s critique of its characters is embedded in its deeply ironic narration. Written from a perspective that remains omniscient while maintaining an intimate proximity to Amanda and Clay (primarily Amanda), the book itself seems determined at every point to poke fun at their superficiality, even as it may reflect back to us our own middle-class anxieties. Amanda’s preoccupation with wealth and status is near absolute—her work matters to her only to the extent that it confirms her significance. She experiences the “endorphin rush” of e-mails arriving in her inbox with a nearly sexual thrill: “Forty-one! She felt so necessary, so missed, so loved.”
Clay is a generic Brooklyn dad who sneaks cigarettes when he thinks his wife won’t notice and is rendered incoherent by the sight of a map: “I can’t do anything without my phone,” he confesses. His inner monologue ranges from vain (“He wanted to be asked to write for the New York Times Book Review but didn’t want to actually write anything”) to weirdly grandiose: I am genuinely unsure whether to read his justification of smoking as a formerly “patriotic act…like owning slaves or killing the Cherokee” as tongue-in-cheek or just bigoted. Later, standing at the grill, Clay imagines “some shirtless Iroquois in hide loincloth, stoking a fire that the flesh of his flesh might dine on flesh.”
Alam is at his best when lavishing attention on the texture and details of a certain style of privileged contemporary urban life, rendering it with a Chuck Close–style hyperrealism that magnifies its flaws. “Step into our beautiful house and leave the world behind,” beckons the ad copy for the vacation house, which represents the fulfillment of Amanda and Clay’s most primal desires. The master bathroom is “all white…that particular fantasy of purity to escape the reality of your own excrement.” Clay gets an erection at the sight of the kitchen’s marble countertops and the Miele washer, lending a whole new meaning to “shelter porn.” The furnishings are designed for leisure, warmth, good times: “the pendant lamps hovering over the oak table, in case you wanted to do a jigsaw puzzle at night, the gray marble kitchen island where you could imagine kneading dough.” The floors are “wide-plank wood harvested from an old cotton mill in Utica” and installed so securely that they never creak. Every potential inconvenience has been anticipated and remedied: “The people who owned this house were rich enough to be thoughtful.”
Those owners are an abstraction, the house’s blank slate unmarred by a single family photograph. So when a knock on the door interrupts Amanda and Clay on the second night of their vacation, they are astonished to discover that the people at the door—the homeowners, or so they say—are Black. G.H. (George) and Ruth Washington are a conservatively dressed, soft-spoken older couple, distinctly nonthreatening; Ruth looks like “the kind of woman you’d see in a television ad for an osteoporosis medication.” Amanda wonders at first if they might be the handyman and the maid: “She was at least appropriately ashamed by her conjecture. But those people didn’t look like the sort to own such a beautiful house.” In the moment, and periodically throughout the rest of the novel, she simply cannot reconcile the ecstasies the house has induced in her with the idea that it might be owned by Black people.
Alam’s update on the old Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner trope is a good one, and Hollywood apparently agrees: the book was optioned by Netflix before it was published, with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington set to star. But what might happen after Amanda and Clay reluctantly wrap their heads around the idea that the people on the doorstep are who they say they are and begrudgingly invite them inside? Just when things could start to get complicated, Alam throws us a distraction. A blackout has darkened all of New York City (and possibly the East Coast), rendering the Washingtons’ Park Avenue apartment inaccessible by elevator. With intimations that this might be the beginning of some larger disaster, they’ve decided they’ll be safer in their vacation house—despite the presence of their paying guests, to whom they defer by offering to sleep in the downstairs apartment.
As the world left behind intrudes on the oblivious vacationers, the novel changes gear. With the TV suddenly and mysteriously out of commission and no sign of the Internet save a few cryptic iPhone news alerts, the four adults have no way to assess the scope of the emergency. Alam nicely anatomizes the meltdown of the privileged in the face of calamity. The women catastrophize while the men stay calm: “We heard the emergency broadcast system…. Not ‘a test,’” Ruth breathlessly reports; fearing that the power might go out, Amanda orders Clay to fill the bathtubs, despite having no idea why electricity would affect the water supply. “The emergency is that New York City is without power. But we still have it,” Clay rationalizes, while G.H. remarks reasonably that an act of terrorism, if that’s what has taken place, doesn’t scare him as much as the possible response to it: “Let’s say something happens in New York City. Do you think this president will do the right thing about it?” He later assures Amanda and Clay that “it’s not the end of the world. It’s a market event.”
Though the Washingtons are their own kind of stereotype, the novel treats them with slightly more complexity than it does Amanda and Clay, about whose histories we learn essentially nothing, not even their last names. In contrast, the Washingtons are given some backstory, particularly the grandfatherly G.H. (“silvered hair, tortoiseshell glasses, a gold watch”), who we’re told grew up poor, went to business school “in Cambridge,” and now works in finance: “Not for a big bank. A small firm, a boutique operation.” In one of the novel’s many fine moments of humor, we’re told that the whisky he prefers is “old enough to vote.” He is presented as solicitous at one moment, helping Rose find cake-decorating supplies in the kitchen, and oddly intimate at another, chatting amiably with a naked Amanda in the hot tub in a scene I found impossible to believe.
We don’t learn much about Ruth’s past, but her emotional life is drawn with greater complexity than Amanda’s; we see her fretting over the growing gulf between herself and her daughter, Maya, who is raising two children with her female partner and is annoyed by her mother’s more conservative inclinations. The narration offers a few glimpses of Ruth remembering incidents that took place before the novel begins (one involving a Manhattan children’s bookstore many of Alam’s readers will know: “Ruth would come bearing bags from Books of Wonder, and Maya would pore over them like a rabbi, searching out their sins”). Though Ruth mostly comes off as bland, she suffers evident anguish over not being able to reach her child and grandchildren during the crisis. Concealing with difficulty her disgust at the dirty dishes the renters have left in the sink, she manages her anxiety by tidying the house.
But what exactly is going on? I can’t say—not out of reluctance to spoil the plot, but because the novel doesn’t tell us. There are cryptic signs of disaster, some more graphic than others. Rose observes a herd of a thousand or more deer passing through the woods on their way to an unknown destination; perhaps the animals know something the humans don’t. There is an unexplained noise, so loud and penetrating as to be traumatic—“You didn’t hear such a noise; you experienced it, endured it, survived it, witnessed it.” Archie becomes suddenly and violently sick, his teeth grotesquely coming loose from his gums, and the adults discuss the pros and cons of taking him to a hospital. A flock of flamingos lands in the swimming pool.
Meanwhile, the novel’s narrator suddenly adopts a wider-angle view, informing us, in a voice-over both knowing and coy, of events beyond the dream house, withholding as much as it reveals. “The sickness in the ground and in the air and in the water was all a clever design,” the narrator says, without explaining what the design is or where it came from, then launches into a series of questions:
Did it matter if a storm had metastasized into something for which no noun yet existed? Did it matter if the electrical grid broke apart like something built of Lego?… Did it matter if some nation claimed responsibility for the outage, did it matter that it was condemned as an act of war, did it matter if this was pretext for a retaliation long hoped for, did it matter that proving who had done what via wires and networks was actually impossible?
These seem to be rhetorical questions, strung together by a voice whose nonchalant tone gives the same weight to the developing disaster as to the provenance of the kitchen floorboards. But they made me want to answer, emphatically, Yes! It matters. One thing many Americans have become even more keenly aware of in recent months—whether because of the pandemic, the protests against systemic racism, or the conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of the election results, which led to the takeover of the US Capitol by right-wing extremists—is that root causes matter, verifiable facts matter, sources matter. If the “machines meant for supporting life ceased doing that hard work after the failure of backup generators in Miami, in Atlanta, in Charlotte, in Annapolis,” as the narrator describes, it matters that we know the cause, so that the situation can be rectified and those responsible can be brought to justice. It matters whether the “sickness” is brought about by a pathogen, as in the case of Covid-19, or by an act of terror by a foreign government (as the narrator hints), so that we know how to defend ourselves and against whom to exact retribution, if possible. Perhaps Alam is suggesting that if the world is destroyed, none of these things will matter in the long run, which is surely true. But as I turned the pages, I found myself doubting whether he had made up his own mind about the form of the crisis.
I was also increasingly skeptical of the book’s descriptions of human behavior in extremis. Other dystopian novels of recent years—including Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014), which takes place mostly in the aftermath of a swiftly transmitted and overwhelmingly fatal flu, and Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), in which the source of infection is a fungus from China, of all places—seem to me to have done a better job at imagining how people might react when faced with an emergency of ungraspable but clearly dire proportions. “Did it matter,” Alam’s narrator asks,
if an asthmatic woman named Deborah died after six hours trapped on an F train stalled beneath the Hudson River, and that the other people on the subway walked past her body and felt nothing in particular?
Leaving aside the fact that the F train actually runs under the East River, that’s not how people acted on September 11: there are many accounts of able-bodied people helping others down the stairs in the Twin Towers or sheltering those who were weaker as the towers collapsed. And feeling “nothing in particular” does not correspond to my sense of how people have reacted to deaths in the Covid-19 epidemic, including those of strangers.
The incoherence about the nature of the events makes it clear that Alam’s primary focus is elsewhere. Despite its appearance, Leave the World Behind isn’t a book about a global disaster; it’s a book about racism—or, more precisely, white entitlement. Throughout the narrative, Amanda remains unable to process the juxtaposition of the Washingtons’ wealth and their Blackness, persisting in making cringe-inducing remarks like telling G.H. he resembles Denzel Washington. “I can’t say something wise and churchy for you,” Ruth finally tells her when Amanda asks for comfort after Archie gets sick.
Black people are not the only targets of Clay and Amanda’s racism. The morning after the Washingtons arrive, Clay volunteers to drive to town for information about the crisis and quickly gets lost on the way. As he tries to get his bearings, he passes a woman on the side of the road. She is wearing a white shirt and khaki pants, which he assumes—based on the “broad, indigenous shape” of her face—is a maid’s uniform. She beckons him over and begins speaking rapidly in Spanish, which he doesn’t understand. He watches helplessly from his car while she weeps:
She spoke louder, hurried, was imprecise, maybe lapsing out of Spanish altogether into some dialect, something still more ancient, the argot of civilizations long dead, piles of rubble in jungles. Her people discovered corn, tobacco, chocolate…. Now their descendants shucked the corn they’d been the first to know about, and vacuumed rugs and watered decorative beds of lavender planted poolside at mansions in the Hamptons that sat unused most of the year.
To his shame, Clay drives away: “A different man would respond differently, but Clay was the man he was, one unable to provide what this woman needed, one afraid of her urgency, her fear, which did not need translation.” Yet just as what we know about Amanda goes no deeper than the contents of her grocery cart or her sexual fantasies, the question of why Clay is the man he is goes unexplored. If it were explored—if we learned something about his history, for instance—it might be easier to understand how, faced with a weeping Hispanic woman, his thoughts could turn immediately to her ancestors’ agricultural achievements.
In a recent profile by Lila Shapiro in New York magazine, Alam spoke candidly about his own experiences with racism. The child of Bangladeshi immigrants, he grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., and is now raising two adopted Black sons with his husband, David Land, a white photographer of interiors. When he first began writing, he said, he tried to emulate white writers, assuming that his work would be judged according to the same criteria as theirs. Then, in 1997, when he was still in college, The New Yorker published a special fiction issue devoted to Indian writers. For Alam, the act of calling attention to these writers’ ethnicity had the effect of marginalizing them at the same time that they were being celebrated: “It underscored the way in which an Establishment that judged what fiction is will always append that modifier,” he said. Later, working at Condé Nast, he was thrilled by his apparent acceptance into that fashion empire. But at a company birthday party, his boss’s mother, whom he had met many times before, mistook him for her driver.
“What interests [Alam] is the delusion at the heart of whiteness, the belief that people of color don’t belong in your space, even when you’re the interloper,” Shapiro writes. Leave the World Behind might be read as a dramatization of that belief, with the power dynamics reversed. As the novelist, Alam controls the narrative; it’s his prerogative to spotlight white ignorance and entitlement. At the same time, the stereotype-heavy characters combine with the lack of plot development to give this book the feeling of a set piece rather than a fully realized work of fiction of the sort written by the novelists Alam has said he admires.
Some of this may be intentional: Alam’s protagonists are so blinded by their own entitlement that they cannot change, just like the white establishment they represent. Writers of color continue to receive book advances far below the average of white writers, as a recent article in The New York Times made clear,* and the lack of editors and executives of color in the publishing industry continues to be a major problem, despite efforts to remedy it. But the excitement with which Leave the World Behind has been greeted by many readers and critics—including its receiving a National Book Award nomination—suggests that the establishment may not be so immutable after all. There can be no doubt that things have changed since 1997, when Alam’s novels might well have been put into the category of “South Asian fiction.” No one today is reading his books that way, which is as it should be.
Alam is a gifted writer; I devoured Leave the World Behind in a long gulp on an insomniac night. The verisimilitude with which he depicts a certain social world is impressive. But I was left wishing he had marshaled his talents in the service of something more ambitious. This slender book feels like half a novel, one that might work better if it dissected human motivation as assiduously as it does shopping habits, or if it tried to pull its seemingly random nuggets of terror into a cohesive shape. When a writer seems to be more interested in describing shallowness than in diving into the mess of human emotion, the result can be fiction that circles around urgent social questions without really examining them.