In Leave The World Behind, a new novel from celebrated fiction writer Rumaan Alam, a white family’s vacation at an Airbnb is pulled into uncertainty when the Black homeowners show up with portentous news. What follows is shrewd social commentary wrapped in an unnerving apocalypse tale.
The novel is already being adapted for a Netflix film starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. Today, we host a spoiler-free chat with the author about the book, the movie, and what the story says about our world today.
Later this month, we’ll break it down with our group of panelists … and you! Send us a voice memo with your thoughts on the book. Just record yourself on your phone and send the audio file to email@example.com
Sitting With Uncertainty
Greta Johnsen: I’ve already heard from a couple of Nerdette listeners who have sent in their thoughts about the book. One said she liked it a lot, but that as a Type A person, she struggled with the uncertainty in it.
Rumaan Alam: There’s a real discomfort around the book’s vagueness for a lot of readers, and I love that. That’s so much of what the book is trying to achieve. Because that’s the condition, I think, of life today. It’s that discomfort, that not-knowing. That despite having access to more information than any people on the planet ever have, we still don’t really know what’s happening, and that can be really crazy-making. And indeed there are readers who definitely find that to be a provocation. Or an irritation.
The Experience Of Joy
Johnsen: I think something that makes this book really fascinating is that there aren’t really any good choices to make for the characters. Right?
Alam: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, it is a group of people experiencing an emergency. But there really is no good answer [for the characters]… And I think that feels to me so much like the contemporary moment. There is no good answer. Fine, renounce using plastic drinking straws, but unless you personally are the CEO of Exxon, I’m not sure that your individual choices are really going to change any aspect of contemporary life. That’s so difficult to reckon with. Because we’re all going to feel the effects of these big choices, but we’re not the ones making them. It can make you feel a little deranged.
Johnsen: Yeah, I mean, when you really think about it real life is kind of f---ed up, huh?
Alam: [laughing] Yeah, unfortunately it can be. But I also think there’s something remarkable about the fact that, no matter the experience of your life, if you are trying to squeeze out a little bit of joy, it can be really beautiful. You know, you can celebrate the birth of a new child whether you’re a comfortably middle class person in the United States or a stateless person negotiating a grave political conflict. You’re still getting that same experience of joy, and that matters.
Vacationing At The End Of The World
Johnsen: I got a question for you from a Nerdette listener. It is: If you could be on vacation anywhere during the end of the world, where would it be?
Alam: Wow, it’s probably exactly what I describe in the book actually.
Alam: Yeah, so the book is set in a pretend place, which is really important for me to understand because I have heard this kind of push back from readers who read in a more literal way. The book is written in a place that doesn’t really exist, but the geography I’m describing is a place I do go to with my family all the time. The particular house described in the book is based quite specifically on a house I rented with my family in 2017. It’s just a very quiet, very beautiful place. There are no cars in the community we vacation in. There’s a weird population of almost-tame wild deer wandering around. You can hear the ocean from the bedroom. I just have such beautiful memories of being there with my kids really doing nothing. You go to the beach all day. You come home. You have a hot dog for dinner, and you’re asleep by 8:30. So if I had to see the end, I think that would be a pretty great place to see it.
This conversation was lightly edited for clarity and brevity. Press the ‘play’ button to hear the full episode.