Is this what the end of the world feels like? Humans can adapt to just about anything, but it still comes as a surprise how quickly we seem to have adjusted to this: masks and hand sanitizer, waving to grandparents through nursing home windows, Zoom funerals, the West Coast ablaze, federal officers heaving protesters into unmarked vans, the president openly setting the stage for a coup in the event of his losing reelection.
It’s not that these things haven’t caused devastation, exposed more and more people to homelessness, illness, insurmountable debt and death; it’s the paralyzed reaction of those with relatively intact lives. Do we take to the streets, or stay in with the latest bad Netflix show? Do we stare at Twitter for the latest grim updates, or do we avoid the news and focus on cooking a decadent new recipe? Do we throw ourselves into the perilous unknown, or avoid it and relish what few comforts remain? Do we try to do both, toggling back and forth between desperate rage and bourgeois relaxation? When the end actually comes, will we meet it fighting, or will it surprise us as we laze on the couch with a plate of homemade shallot pasta?
Every night I read on my phone while I nurse my son one last time before bed. I used to read Twitter, but recently I gave that up. I didn’t want the world to intrude on us where we sat curled together in a big gray Ikea armchair in his dim nursery. Positive vibes only. I decided to read books instead, and I was in that armchair, stroking his soft, milk-moist cheek, as I read Rumaan Alam’s new book, “Leave the World Behind,” and slowly realized that I was still reading about the end of the world as I know it.
“Leave the World Behind” begins with a white, affluent family leaving for vacation. Amanda and Clay have rented a plush house out on Long Island for a late-summer holiday with their children, hormonal teen Archie and introverted tween Rosie. It’s so far out that they don’t even expect to have cell phone service — just a week with a pool, a huge kitchen and unlimited TV. “The only things a person ever wanted,” reflects Clay, “were food and home.”
The opening chapters gave me vague déjà vu, not only to past vacations but to past novels, like Emma Straub’s “The Vacationers.” The frazzled parents wrangle kids and confirmation numbers and last-minute work emails. The holiday home opens out before them, placidly decadent and promising a temporary blank slate, free of all the marital tensions or professional disappointments back in the city.
The mother, of course, goes to the closest grocery and buys, buys, buys: “She bought yogurt and blueberries. She bought sliced turkey, whole-grain bread, that pebbly mud-colored mustard, and mayonnaise. She bought potato chips and tortilla chips and jarred salsa full of cilantro, even though Archie refused to eat cilantro. She bought organic hot dogs and inexpensive buns and the same ketchup everyone else bought. She bought cold, hard lemons and seltzer and Tito’s vodka and two bottles of nine-dollar red wine.” The list goes on and on, bacon and maple syrup and cheddar and boxed yellow cake and zucchini and kale and ground beef: “It was more than two hundred dollars, but never mind.” There’s something particularly potent and mesmerizing about grocery and cooking scenes in vacation novels, a chore suddenly elevated into an indulgence. You can leave behind your job, the chaos of the subway, but your children always have to be fed. Things are stressful; you deserve a treat. You buy the good cheese, add the extra pint of ice cream to the cart.
Aside from a few work emails for Amanda and a quick piece Clay, a writer and professor, has to write for The New York Times Book Review, the family relaxes into the balmy embrace of their week off. They let a day at the beach wear them out pleasantly. They let the big TV lull them to sleep on the couch. They eat huge meals, then dessert. Clay and Amanda down cocktails and wine. They’re on vacation! Consumption of this sort expands to fill the empty days, on vacation or in quarantine, the horrors outside drowned out in online shopping and new recipes.
The only things a person ever wanted were food and home. Rumaan Alam, "Leave the World Behind"
A knock on the door late at night comes as the first clue that something has happened. It’s an elderly Black couple, well-dressed, polite. They explain that they are the owners of the rental, and they want to come in. Throughout the novel, Alam floats freely among the perspectives of his characters, but this is the first point at which the technique really sizzles. He drifts back and forth between Amanda, suspicious but embarrassed of her suspicion, and the couple, G.H. and Ruth Washington, who are very carefully playing their roles in order to gain entrance. “‘I know it’s late. A knock at the door, way out here,’” says the man. Alam explains, “He had imagined how this would transpire. He had rehearsed his part.”
The Washingtons finally persuade their way in, and reveal that they fled to their country house because of some unexplained catastrophe. Cell service is out, and so is the internet and TV. They didn’t feel safe going back to their Manhattan apartment, so they came here, hoping to smooth things over with a partial refund for the booking. Amanda checks her phone and sees an unsettling series of news alerts from The New York Times — one about a power outage in the region, and one that is simply garbled characters.
This is disturbing, as is the presence of the Washingtons. But what can they do? The couple stays, and the next morning, the house still has electricity and the sun is shining. They’re in a beautiful house full of bread and chocolate and pasta, and their kids don’t even notice anything amiss — except for the lack of internet service. Maybe everything is fine.
As the novel progresses, the four adults in the house argue over what to do next, and take turns feeling waves of dread and anxiety. The Washingtons have a daughter who lives in Massachusetts with her wife and two little boys, and they haven’t been able to be in touch. Clay tries to drive into town for news, but immediately gets lost and spends hours driving around just trying to find the house again. While he’s out, he sees a terrified woman on the side of the road, flagging him down, but when he discovers she speaks only Spanish, he is stymied. Unsure of how to help her, he simply drives away.
Alam offers flashes of direct evidence that there is a greater danger hovering over them, most unnoticed by the adults. The insect hum has gone silent. Rosie, left to her own devices that morning, sees hundreds of deer flocking out of the woods and past the house. Later, the adults find wild flamingos in the pool. A sonic boom rends the air over the home, cracking the windows and striking terror into both families. Amanda tears through the woods outside the house, screaming for her children, who throw themselves into her arms.
But the novel is a testament to the human urge to go on as before, hoping that your tiny spot on the map, at least, has been spared. For the most part, the vacation home is still a place with a working hot tub and a fridge full of nectarines and brie and six healthy people. If all is not well with the outside world, well, maybe that can be safely ignored for now.
Back in March, Wired published an essay called “This Is the Cozy Catastrophe Americans Have Always Wanted.” In it, Josh Wilbur argues that, for the financially comfortable, the pandemic has brought about the kind of crisis captured in “cosy catastrophe” sci-fi novels from the mid-century era: A combination of living in exciting times and not having to sacrifice any personal comforts, huddled at home with takeout, Netflix, and constantly updated news reports. He cited a 2009 Tor.com article by author Jo Walton, who wrote, “In the classic cosy catastrophe, the catastrophe doesn’t take long and isn’t lingered over, the people who survive are always middle class, and have rarely lost anyone significant to them.” In the blog, she argued that the genre was birthed by “middle-class British people who had lived through the upheavals and new settlement during and after World War II, and who found the radical idea that the working classes were people hard to deal with, and wished they would all just go away.”
Of course, this is not how catastrophe is experienced by most people, especially the poor and working class, but even those who have their jobs and can work from home. It’s hard to have what Wilbur cheekily called “that warm-and-fuzzy-end-of-the-world feeling” when I’m stroking my son’s little cheek and calculating how much longer humanity would have to hang on for him to live to old age. It’s a fantasy, in which privileged people who see themselves as the protagonists of the world imagine they will be sheltered by the narrative forces of reality (policy, wealth, luck) even amid mass suffering and death.
Alam exploits this fantasy to the hilt, slowly winding up the tension between the idyll in the vacation house and the rumblings of apocalypse from the outside world. Clay and Amanda, most of all, cannot be shaken from their denial. They want to finish out vacation in the house they’ve paid for, or perhaps to head back to the city for the comforts of home. ”‘A staycation. The movies. Go to the Met. Dinner at a sit-down Chinese restaurant, with those silver pots of tea and orange slices when they bring the bill.’ The life they had was perfect.” How to face that they brought two precious children into the world and yet cannot protect them from what might be out there? Better to believe that if they just stay home, they can keep the whole world at bay.