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Leave the World Behind’s bougie apocalypse

Join the Vox Book Club in discussing our June pick.

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A country house surrounded by trees at sunrise.
Don’t you want to go there and leave the world behind?
Shutterstock

The big thing in Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind, the Vox Book Club’s June pick, is all of the, well, things. This book is nearly encyclopedic in its accounting of the pleasures of modern bourgeois American life.

Marble countertops and a copper pot-filler at the stove. Pasta tossed with herbs and garlic and that salted European butter that comes in a cylinder. All-white linens in the bathroom and the laundry soap hidden in a tasteful wooden box. At times, reading Leave the World Behind can put you in something approaching the same state of blank tranquility you find scrolling through a lifestyle influencer’s Instagram feed.

The trance only lasts for moments, though. Because Leave the World Behind does not think that the pleasures it is cataloging are neutral pleasures that can be enjoyed and then abandoned without thought. You can tell even at the beginning, before the horror begins to emerge, because Alam describes all of these luxuries with a loving precision that becomes its own form of judgment.

You know what kind of woman makes sure to buy the pebbly mud-colored mustard on her beach vacation. You know what kind of man makes his burgers by dabbling Worcestershire sauce into the ground beef “like daubing perfume onto a wrist.” And even if you are that kind of person (I confess I have a weakness for fancy mustard), you know that within the world of this book, such habits are going to feel ridiculous, if not worse.

The mustard-buying woman and the Worcestershire-daubing man are Amanda and Clay, respectively: upwardly mobile middle-class Brooklynites who have Airbnb’ed a house in rural Long Island with their two children. They plan to spend a week of vacation wallowing in the glorious luxuries of a house they are not rich enough to own but are rich enough to aspire toward — but then, on their first night at the house, there’s a knock at the door.

It’s G.H. and Ruth Washington, the house’s wealthy 60-something owners. Discomfiting the politely liberal Amanda and Clay, they are Black, and although they originally planned to spend the week in their Manhattan apartment, something seems to have gone terribly wrong.

There’s been a blackout in New York City. Vague news alerts warn of a hurricane, but the internet is down. The TV and radio are both playing only a single sentence: “This is the emergency broadcast system.”

Ruth and G.H. don’t know what’s happened exactly, but they know they don’t want to try to climb the 14 flights of stairs to their apartment with the power out. They don’t want to try their luck at a hotel in all this chaos. Instead, they want to be in their lovely country home, with all their lovely things.

So, too, do Amanda and Clay; Amanda keeps repeating that after all, they’ve rented the place. But after some initial awkwardness, the two families enter into an uneasy truce.

G.H. makes drinks and Ruth — side-eying sloppy Amanda — cleans up the house. Amanda makes chocolate-and-brie sandwiches. Clay sneaks clandestine cigarettes. The children frolic in the pool, explore the woods, bake a cake from a box.

Frequently, someone will remark that they really should drive up to the nearest town and figure out what’s going on. Occasionally, one person will even gesture at doing so. Somehow, even as calamity piles atop calamity, even as it becomes impossible to ignore that something terribly wrong has happened — somehow no one ever quite makes it into town. Always they end up returning to that beautiful little house and its soothing, numbing pleasures.

And why not? What are the alternatives? The world is falling apart, they have no idea why, and there’s nothing they can do. They have already done nothing. Whatever it is has already happened.

All of the adults in this novel are used to apocalyptic thinking, because all of it has already come: It’s Kim Jong-un, they think; or no, it’s Trump; or no, it’s global warming finally coming for us all. Whatever is causing the end of the world is something that already went terribly wrong, and when it happened, they turned away from it and chose instead to wallow in their lovely things. So why should that change now, when the consequences are finally here to stay?

Leave the World Behind was written before the pandemic struck, but it came out last fall, right in the midst of everything. After the past year, many of us probably have a loose familiarity with the dynamic at play in Leave the World Behind: Some big amorphous tragedy is happening out in the world, something too big for us to truly grasp, and so instead we nest. The pandemic comes, and we listen to the sirens and we bake banana bread. The body count rises, and we grow our own sourdough starter.

In the case of the pandemic, staying home was, oddly, an active choice: It meant helping to keep the body count down in the only way many people could. So as familiar as it might feel to watch Alam’s characters lose themselves in deciding how to frost their boxed cake, the real parallel in this book is not with quarantine. It’s with everything that led up to quarantine: a class of educated liberals watching a country’s infrastructure and institutions rot, and choosing, instead of doing anything, to enjoy their nice things instead.

It’s that choice that, in Leave the World Behind, is an unmistakable act of sin.

Share your thoughts on Leave the World Behind in the comments section below, and be sure to join us on June 30 for a live discussion event with Rumaan Alam. In the meantime, subscribe to the Vox Book Club newsletter to make sure you don’t miss anything.

Discussion questions

  1. The sin of these characters’ indifference to the rest of the world probably becomes most clear when Clay meets a Spanish-speaking woman in the road, clearly asking for help, and abandons her. How did you take that moment? Did it make Clay feel irredeemable to you?
  2. What detail about your consumption habits would someone use to paint a damning portrait of you in a dark social satire? For me it would probably be the snail slime serum I put on my face. (As Patricia Lockwood wrote, snail slime is a lot more central to modern womanhood than you would expect.)
  3. The omniscient narrator of this novel keeps hinting darkly at what this apocalypse might be — we hear about military planes, about disrupted patterns of animal migration — but we never learn exactly what it is. When did it become clear to you that we would never learn what had happened? How do you feel about that choice?