Rumaan Alam, Leave the World Behind (Bloomsbury 2020)
Just a quick post about this one.
A white middle-class family from Brooklyn – father, mother, teenage boy and younger teenage girl – move into an isolated, luxurious AirBnB place on Long Island. (How do we know they’re white? There are a number of tells apart from their immersion in US materialism – they refer casually to slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans in ways that would be astonishing in the mouths of people of colour or Indigenous people.)
They stock up with luxury holiday supplies and are just settling in on the first night, revelling in the fantasy that this fancy place is theirs, enjoying the delicious discomfort of not being able to check work emails because they have no coverage or WiFi, and generally wallowing in the first night of their vacation while a storm rages outside, when a knock at the door strikes terror into their hearts.
Their visitors are an older African-American couple. We know they’re Black because we see them through the holidayers’ eyes, and that’s the first thing they see. Our heroes’ initial worry that this is some kind of home invasion are dispelled when they are told, and eventually believe, that the visitors are the respectable upper middle-class AirBnB hosts.
The terror never quite dissipates, but its focus shifts. The narrative proceeds painfully slowly. There are weird signs and omens – hundreds of deer in the woods, a dozen flamingoes in the swimming pool, an unexplained noise loud enough to crack the glass in windows. The characters spend most of the novel in various states of unknowing.
It’s like one of those horror movies where there’s a slow build-up until finally the horror is revealed – except in this case we don’t arrive at the inevitably disappointing moment where we see the horror face to face. It’s probably eccentric of me, but I think of Hart Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage, where the protagonist has no idea what’s going on in the war in general but can only see what’s going on in his immediate vicinity. In that case, the readers have a wider perspective because we know some of the history. In this one, the narrator breaks the fourth wall with increasing frequency to give broad-brushstroke information about what is happening back home in Brooklyn or somewhere in Florida. We still don’t know the exact nature of the disaster unfolding in the wider world, but we do know the cause of the mysterious noise and – the narrator seems to imply – if we’ve been paying attention to events in real life we should be able to guess what’s happening.
If The Red Badge of Courage is too far-fetched a comparison, how about Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel. In that movie, the guests can’t go home from a bourgeois dinner party. In this novel they could theoretically leave, and they make a number of sallies forth, but – no spoilers here – there’s an overwhelming sense that these six people are stuck with each other.
The opening pages moved almost unbearably slowly with their attention to the detail of the white mother’s shopping excursion. And once the full complement of characters is present, the conversation tends to repeat. But something in this obsessive listing of brand names and constant return to a handful of observations was generates a cumulative sense of dread, and for me at least it pays off brilliantly as things come closer to boiling point.
Once again, I’m grateful to our Book(-swapping) Club for taking me out of my comfort zone.