Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.
The clever ironies and turns on the property metaphor are matched only by the twists in the plot to come. A book that begins as a novel of class and then comes to encompass race by the middle transforms again into a waking nightmare ... And the narrator, who has moved deftly from character to character, investing us fully in the lives of all six occupants of the Airbnb, expands our viewpoint outward, to the woods, to the city, to the planet. And the news is not good ... the perfect title for a book that opens with the promise of utopia and travels as far from that dream as our worst fears might take us. It is the rarest of books: a genuine thriller, a brilliant distillation of our anxious age, and a work of high literary merit that deserves a place among the classics of dystopian literature.
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: ...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. 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 ... 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 ... 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...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 ... 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.
... enthralling ... Leave the World Behind is a coy little thing: a disaster novel without the disaster ... In most literature of this ilk, the disaster, whether rising seas or a virus, is a force of narrative tension: the reader is keen to learn how humans move from a time of upheaval to one of stability. Alam never gets there; upheaval is all his characters have. His achievement is to see that his genre’s traditional arc, which relies on the idea of aftermath, no longer makes sense.