Saturday, 10 October 2020

Something to hold on to: An interview with Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind was written in the before times. It was written before the pandemic, the recession, and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. It was written before wildfires burned more than four million acres of the American West and before skies halfway across the globe were made blurry with smoke. And yet it feels, in a way, like the first novel to be written about our new world. This is not only because it centers around a group of people quarantined in a house together during a crisis (though it does), but because it offers a clear-eyed, if deeply unsettling, portrait of what emerges when our shared reality is bent, cracked, and forever altered.

The novel follows Amanda and Clay, a white couple from Brooklyn, who, following the seductive command of the novel’s title, go on vacation to a rural area on the East End of Long Island with their teenage children, Archie and Rose. But after a few indulgent days of hamburgers, sex, and drinking wine by the pool, the homeowners, a Black couple named G. H. and Ruth, arrive one night unannounced. They bring with them news that there has been a blackout in New York City, and, panicked, they have come to stay. It is an awkward, fraught moment that seems to set up a story about race and hypocrisy and misjudged expectations. Without giving too much away—Alam should teach a master class on the suspenseful withholding of information—the novel quickly spirals into something entirely different. Over the next twenty-four hours, a series of terrifying and inexplicable events befall the household. The internet and phone service go out; Archie comes down with a bad fever; flamingos land in the swimming pool; and the air is rent by a series of massive, deafening sounds. Overnight, the world becomes unrecognizable, and the strangers form a tense, unlikely union. Alam plays his cards close to the chest, explaining very little about the nature of the crisis. And in a way, uncertainty itself becomes the novel’s primary subject. Alam attends to the contours of that uncertainty with devastating precision.


At a time when focus has not come easily to me—my attention flickers restlessly between impossible headlines, bottomless news feeds, and the same four walls I have occupied since March—I was held still by the urgency, beauty, and uncanny familiarity of Alam’s world.


The author of two previous novels, Rich and Pretty (2016) and That Kind of Mother (2018), Alam’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, and The New Republic, where he is a contributing editor. He also cohosts two podcasts for Slate. Leave The World Behind is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction.


PHOTO CREDIT: DAVID A. LAND



I spoke to Alam by phone in late September. He was at home with his husband and kids in Brooklyn, where he has spent most of the past seven months since the pandemic began. He spoke softly, he explained, because his children were attending online school in another room.

 

INTERVIEWER

In your new novel, strangers are stuck in a house together as the world undergoes a mysterious and unidentified disaster. You wrote the book long before the pandemic began, but it’s almost impossible to read it or discuss it without acknowledging the eerie resonances it has with our current moment.


ALAM

Yes, totally. And, of course, in a very simple way, it’s just a strange coincidence. The fact that I fixed on the metaphor of isolation and the device of people trapped in a house, without knowing that we, American readers, would all be people trapped in our houses, was just an accident of timing. But the novel is also grappling with things that I think have been in the cultural atmosphere for a long time. It’s talking about technology and our strange dependence on it. It’s talking about race and the very complicated ways in which race defines people in our country and in our culture. These are not new ideas. These are things that have been in the air for a long time.


It’s inevitable that the cultural and political context of a given moment will determine how we understand art, right? But art isn’t necessarily a reflection of that immediate context. It’s usually the product of an earlier moment. A painting takes time. A film takes time. A book takes time. It’s an understandable impulse to try to make sense of art through the lens of the current moment. And this current moment—I’m talking particularly about the coronavirus—is so heightened. It’s so strange and unusual that it has really dramatically affected how we understand art. There are so many relics of the recent past that already feel irrelevant. When I say that, I am thinking about a reality TV show that I happen to be watching. It was filmed before the pandemic, and it just feels like it’s from a million years ago. But I don’t think that that’s necessarily a fair way to consider art. It has to have a longer or a broader purpose than simply to riff on something in the moment. In many ways, I would be very suspicious of a work that emerged right now—a film, a book, even a short story—that aimed to talk about what is happening right now … whether that is the coronavirus or the 2020 election, because it’s still happening. You need a little context, a little distance.


INTERVIEWER

That makes a lot of sense.


ALAM

A while ago, I posted a related question on Twitter. I was trying to solve this problem intellectually and I asked around to see if anyone thought there was a really good novel about 9/11. I don’t mean a novel that depicts 9/11, but a novel that distills what that moment felt like in our cultural and political life, in our individual psyches, in our collective psyches. A novel that really got at what that moment was. And a friend of mine responded, very wisely I think, that they felt it took until Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for the culture to digest in literature the Vietnam War. And that book didn’t come out until like two decades after the war ended. I think that is a very astute statement. It takes time to digest something in a work of art. If my book was, in a way, an attempt to digest current uncertainties, they were pre-pandemic, pre–Donald Trump existential uncertainties. We are going to see much more art that wrestles with this question.


INTERVIEWER

That said, I think people are hungry for art that speaks to the bizarre moment we are in. And it’s been interesting to see the novels and films, some of which are decades old, that have a renaissance right now. Is there a particular book or film that you have gone back to during the pandemic?


ALAM

The book that I always recommend, that no one ever reads, is The Magic Mountain, which is, to my mind, one of the best books ever written. The way that it talks about isolation and solitude—both a literal solitude and also, more profoundly, the solitude of all people—is astonishing.


INTERVIEWER

Leave the World Behind employs a somewhat conventional thriller or horror narrative structure, at least in the first few chapters. Everything is going along fine, and then there is a knock on the door. Strangers appear, and there is tension. But then the book pivots, disrupting the typical horror tropes and becoming … something else entirely. Why did you choose this mode of storytelling? What was compelling to you about disrupting the boundaries of the genre?


ALAM

That’s a nice way of putting it. In a way, the novel is constructed out of convention layered upon convention. At first, this was very helpful to give the story a shape that felt recognizable. The book begins with the narrative of an upper-middle-class family going on vacation, and with the suggestion that the change in geography will occasion a change in life—there are so many books like that. Another convention is the knock on the door, right? The strangers. Maybe with menace. Maybe with horror. And they are Black strangers, which sparks discomfort. Because it also echoes and reveals the prevailing narratives about race in our culture. Guess who’s coming to dinner? The surprise guest revealed to be a race you don’t expect.


I just love those layers. I love seducing the reader into thinking that she is going to get one kind of book, or one kind of storytelling experience. I imagine she reads the first fifty pages and thinks, Okay, I understand this book. It is a middle-class novel of manners. It’s a book about rich white people, and it’s established that there’s going to be some kind of investigation into the couple’s marriage or what it means for them to be parents or how they have reconciled their professional ambitions with their parental responsibilities. But none of that really happens because it is interrupted by a knock on the door. The reader adjusts her experience and thinks, Okay, this is going to be a story about race. It will be a story about uncomfortable confrontations. For a moment, she thinks it might even be a story about crime. But then that script gets flipped, too. It’s not a trick, exactly, but a kind of feint, a way of leading the reader to what I hope is a wholly different, or more exciting, book than she might have expected. What I hope emerges at the end of the book is that the product of all this artifice is, counterintuitively, realism—because that’s what it is to live in reality. Reality is like a mystery novel where we don’t know the ending.


INTERVIEWER

The book is enormously suspenseful. Can you talk a little bit about how you approached creating that suspense, on a craft level?


ALAM

I didn’t study widely how to do it, but I did read Pet Sematary while I was revising this book. When I think about Stephen King, I think of his particular ability to hold the reader in his hands. Which he has done across so many books. And when I read that book, I looked at it not so much as a reader, but, like you said, as a craftsman. That book is written with such extraordinary confidence. When it first starts, it’s recognizable. And then very quickly, about forty pages in, the whole thing has gone totally off the rails. It’s presented as reality, but, of course, it’s absolutely insane. That book is terrifying and crazy, and it just keeps getting further and further from any recognizable universe. Reading that, I realized that I had to be confident in what I was doing, and I had to do it very quickly.


I tried to strike a very delicate balance in Leave the World Behind, where the opening section lingers just long enough to trick you into thinking it’s one kind of book but not so long that you misunderstand the reading experience you’re about to have. One of the things that helps accomplish that is the whole book takes place over just a few days, and most of the real action happens in just a few hours. It’s an extremely compressed timeline, which makes it all feel very urgent. As to the question of why… Well, it’s an act of seduction. It’s a way of making palatable something that is very unsettling. It made a lot of sense to me to use this form to tell an unsettling story. It makes you uneasy.


INTERVIEWER

I don’t often read mysteries or thrillers, and I was surprised by how dramatically the tension and suspense of the book worked on me physically. When Rose and Archie go walking into the woods alone, for instance, my stomach quite literally churned with anxiety—the way it would while watching someone open a basement door in a horror movie. I rarely experience that kind of fear with a novel. Is this something you have experienced as a reader? Is it part of what attracted you to the genre?


ALAM

It’s not a genre I read very much in my current life, but I certainly did when I was young. I read a lot of mysteries, a lot of thrillers—closer to horror than to science fiction. And it made a big impression on me. I really admire the genre. When well practiced, it’s an extremely efficient narrative tool. I guess that’s a dumb thing to say, because the same is true no matter what form you’re talking about. A sonnet or a short story can be incredibly efficient, too, of course. But I think there is a prevailing snobbery about writing horror or thriller, “genre fiction,” that it’s fundamentally less serious. I don’t think that’s true. Because, in the end, it’s really about building a very efficient machine in order to achieve a very specific goal. The author wants to make you quake. He wants to make you shiver. He wants to terrify you. Literary fiction is a genre all it’s own, with its own expectations and conventions, and the aim is less often to elicit that emotional response. It’s more often about doing something compelling on the level of language or style—it’s a different kind of endeavor. But I don’t think that means one is better than the other.


INTERVIEWER

Here, permit me a slight spoiler—I’d like to be able to talk about the book as a whole. Unlike a classic mystery novel, the book never really offers a solution for the mystery at hand. The disaster at the center of the book remains vague, and the characters’ theories are merely speculative. The narrator does offer several cryptic clues about what might be going on in the outside world—it seems to be an environmental disaster of some kind, though there are plane crashes and geopolitics and flamingos involved. Possibly some kind of nuclear conflict. While you were writing, did you have a specific concept of what exactly was taking place? And can you talk a little bit about the decision to leave the catastrophe unnamed? Did that allow you a kind of authorial space that you might not have had otherwise?


ALAM

Agatha Christie novels are satisfying because they give you an explanatory ending. But that’s the one thing that life can’t give you. So for me, in wanting to make this book realistic, I felt strongly that I needed to decline that kind of closure.

Yes, there are little glimpses. But they are almost completely impossible to reconcile with one another. You hear about a television star being hit by a car on the Upper West Side, and then you hear about a plane crash in the Midwest. Those two things could be related, or they could be unrelated. That misdirection was intentional. It sort of turns readers into Claire Danes in Homeland, standing with their backs against the wall, trying to make sense of the chaos. But I think that’s very effective, because it’s like life. I mean, look around. This is just how it is. This is what it feels like. You only ever get glimpses of a larger picture. You try to make sense of them. You think that you have, but you haven’t really.


Don’t get me wrong—I don’t mean to imply that I am some conspiracy theorist. I’m not someone who doubts the objectivity of reality. In fact, I think one of the biggest issues we’re facing in our culture at the moment is that many people do. But I don’t think that any individual can ever grasp the whole of what is going on in the world around them. To me, that is a fact. But it’s also truly unsettling. So, to answer your question, no, I don’t really know what happens. I hope that the way the novel is built allows each reader to have his or her own projection of what might be happening. I have a friend who said to me, “It’s all a fever dream, right? None of this is actually happening. They just got carried away.” I think that’s an interesting reading.


INTERVIEWER

Yes, I also wondered at times whether it was all just paranoia.


ALAM

It doesn’t feel like my place to say whether that’s right or not, but there is evidence that supports that particular reading. I have heard some other people say that the book operates as a metaphor for climate change or for parental love. I think each reading betrays the reader’s own biases and the predilections in their mind. In a way, it’s an act of authorial control to withhold information, but I also see it as an utter evasion of authorial responsibility. I just sort of hand the system over to the reader and say, I don’t know what this means, but I’m out of here. Sure, I have my own feelings about what I am interested in investigating emotionally. But, in the end, my intention doesn’t matter.


INTERVIEWER

I’m curious about this idea that we are never able to completely make sense of everything going on around us. As you mentioned before, the characters in the novel are totally cut off from the world. Their phones don’t work, the internet is down, they have no access to information. But they seem to believe that if they could just read the New York Times and learn more about what’s happening in the world, they’d be better off. G. H. in particular wishes for this, believing knowledge will be an antidote to his fear. This is an idea that a lot of people have, I think. Certainly in the early days of the pandemic, nearly everyone was reading the news obsessively. Staying informed feels comforting, especially in a crisis. But the novel seems to challenge the idea that information is always useful. At a certain point, I began to wonder what practical difference it would make for the characters to know what was happening. Would it simply frighten them more? Would it change the fact that they are all stuck in a house together? Would it help them survive? It made me reflect on how often information offers only the delusion of control.


ALAM

Absolutely. The book questions the comfort of information in a couple different ways. For one, in the first section, it interrogates and mocks the onslaught of information that is modern life, and the ways in which almost all of the information we receive from our phones and from the internet is just monumentally unhelpful. It makes us think we know so many things that we actually don’t. And I am really suspicious of the idea that more information is always a good thing. For example, if you knew you were going to get hit by a car in May of 2023, would that information really be helpful to you? Would that information help guide how you were going to live in a meaningful way? I don’t know if it would.


The characters in the novel lack information about their world, but so does the reader. The reader is missing many, many pieces of the puzzle about the fictional world they are inside, and my hope is that this encourages them to consider that information isn’t always salient or useful. In that way, the book mirrors the world at large. This is what real life feels like. You don’t have all the information. You will never have all the information. You have some of it. You’re trying to do the best with what you have, and you’re living according to hunches and ethics and intuition and an understanding of the world that’s totally imperfect. You’re just trying to do the best you can, and you’re often failing. I think that is how we all feel all the time. I think anything else is just hubris. It’s not unrelated to our dependence on our phones and technology. We are totally helpless without them, though that is a difficult thing to admit.


INTERVIEWER

For a book that is frequently terrifying and satirical, it also contains moments, particularly toward the end, that feel deeply earnest and hopeful. One line that stuck out to me as especially resonant in the current moment was, “You demanded answers, but the universe refused. Comfort and safety were just an illusion. Money meant nothing. All that meant anything was this—people, in the same place, together.” 


ALAM

I don’t think it’s a book without hope. It’s dark, but it’s not wholly pessimistic. I think the novel’s optimism lies really in that one idea, in communion. The simple, human reality of occupying space together. I’m glad that feels resonant right now. I hope that the novel can be good company in that way. This is a moment that is so baffling and extreme that any insight into the way we are supposed to behave or what we are supposed to do feels really lovely and helpful. Personally, I tend to get more of that from visual art than I do from books, and it has been an added complication of the past few months that I haven’t been going to see any art. I haven’t been to a museum, even though they have reopened in New York. It just feels a little too scary and risky. But I’m really missing it. That moment of interaction with a work of art offers something that even the most comprehensive understanding of the headlines will never be able to provide. It gives us something to hold on to.

 

Cornelia Channing is a writer from Bridgehampton, New York. She is a copy editor at New York Magazine.


(Source: The Paris Review)

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