Rumaan Alam On Crisis, Capitalism, & Grocery Shopping

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It wasn’t long into the lockdown in March that my grocery lists began to resemble prayers. Not the kind of prayer that functions as a plea to any god, exactly, but rather the kind that serves as a pledge toward the future, a promise for another day. At that point, nothing felt certain; nothing felt under control. But as I wrote out lists of what I needed to buy, as I planned out what I would need to make enough meals to get through the week, the days — mornings, afternoons, nights; breakfasts, lunches, dinners — began to make sense, began to feel certain, if not fully under control. 

Three boxes of pasta (a tube-y kind; rotini, if they have it)

Two cans crushed tomatoes (the big ones)

One can whole peeled tomatoes 

Three tins of anchovies

A prayer is a bargain. It’s not always a transaction, but it often is. During the earliest part of the pandemic, back when the days and nights were filled with the sound of ambulance sirens and not much else, every one of the grocery lists I made felt like a quiet, desperate plea for normalcy, an attempt to assert authority through the act of buying the kind of food that would do more than merely sustain me — it would also remind me of who I was. All to say, yes, I made the shallot pasta

Based on the groceries that middle-aged, middle-class, married couple Clay and Amanda buy at the beginning of Rumaan Alam’s third novel, Leave the World Behind — “cold, hard lemons” and “organic hot dogs and inexpensive buns” and “twelve-dollar maple syrup in a faceted glass bottle like a tacky perfume” — their identity is also wrapped up in the things they consume; they too would have made Alison Roman’s shallot pasta, and undoubtedly, unhesitatingly have taken her side in the whole Chrissy Teigen debacle

Though they live in Brooklyn, Clay and Amanda have come for a vacation with their two kids — teenagers Archie and Rosie — to a rental house in a Long Island beach town. It is the kind of house — solid, well-appointed, with a pool and hot tub — that Clay and Amanda could never afford themselves, but know innately how to live in, as if it were their birthright as ever-aspirational, well-educated white Americans. They are the kind of people for whom nothing ever really goes wrong, and it is the kind of house in which nothing wrong ever really happens. Until, of course, it does, and Clay and Amanda are forced to confront the fact that nothing — not the house, not the fancy maple syrup, not their money, not even their whiteness — can protect them from disaster.

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“This book began with a very simple and defiant desire to write what looked like a domestic novel,” Alam told me on a recent, sunny fall afternoon. We sat in the backyard of the Brooklyn home that he shares with his husband and two sons, eating oranges and drinking seltzer, talking about his novel, and about what he called the “contemporary feeling of unsteadiness and destabilization in the air.” About six hours after I left, news broke that President Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, and the ongoing erosion of certainty continued apace.

It is this feeling that Alam taps into so bracingly in Leave the World Behind. Though framed within a domestic setting, and punctuated with elements of a comedy of manners, the underlying thrum of the novel is not the steadily reassuring purr of an expensive German dishwasher, but rather the eerily vibrating silence that permeated the air in New York City by mid-April, once the ambulances had stopped using their sirens, because the noise had been too much to bear. They still raced through the streets, but at a whisper instead of a wail. It’s this kind of pulsing energy that is a reminder of the fact that, Alam said, in a time of disaster, “a beautiful home and expensive groceries are lovely things to possess or acquire or think about, but they don’t mean much and they don’t keep you safe.”

The disaster at the center of Alam’s novel happens at a low frequency at first. It begins with a knock on the door of that solid, stable house — “red bricks painted white, the very material the smartest little piggy chose because it would keep him safe.” On the threshold, Clay and Amanda find a couple, George — or G.H. — and Ruth; they’re older than Clay and Amanda; they’re wealthier than Clay and Amanda; they’re Black; they own the house. It’s hard, at first, to know which of those things bother Clay and Amanda the most.

Though they live in Manhattan, George and Ruth have come to their second home because of a blackout in the city, some ambiguous disaster that seems too ominous to look at very closely, and that takes more definite, bone-chilling shape as the novel goes on. At first, Amanda refuses to believe that this beautiful home — which she’s confident could, or rather should, be her own — belongs to George and Ruth: “What if this was some con? Perfect strangers worming their way into the house, into their lives?” She can’t hold herself back from saying to George: “You know, you look a little like Denzel Washington?” (It will be interesting to see how that line of dialogue is interpreted in the film adaptation of the novel; Sam Esmail has signed on to direct, with Julia Roberts as Amanda and Denzel Washington as George.)

As time goes on, it becomes clear — through things witnessed, like a flock of flamingos descending into the pool; experienced, like a particularly haunting dental emergency; and omnisciently narrated, like glimpses into an anarchic New York filled with death — that there is little point at looking to the outside world in the hopes of finding order, and that there will be little reason to cling to now-useless social constructs like racism and classism as they — as we — move forward into a wholly uncertain future. 

“The question that the book is asking,” Alam said to me, “is: What will endure? What is worth hanging onto?” 

Alam recalled what it was like in New York when things first began to shut down this spring, saying. “The first thing everyone I know did was go to the grocery store or get money out of the ATM. And that’s a natural impulse. You need to have food, obviously. But one trip to the grocery store isn’t enough to protect you for the rest of your life.” What everyone realized with almost head-spinning quickness was not only that, in the event of a disaster, nothing that we could buy would protect us for the rest of our lives, but also that we had never really been protected at all. It just took a disaster to make some of us realize it.

“It doesn’t matter what you want to be doing with your life, you may not be the one who gets to call the shots,” Alam told me. “We all know this. No one would ever deny that that’s true — but you’d never tell yourself that it’s true, or you’d never get anything done in your life.”

And, interestingly, as can be seen both in Leave the World Behind and in our actual, real-life disaster, rather than exploit these moments of chaos as a time to reset and try something different, we all too often cling to norms as a means of getting through crisis. So, we bake bread and add new throw pillows to our couch and feel productive; if we are Amanda, we make our special grilled brie-and-chocolate sandwiches. “The terms of the deal changed,” Alam said, “but people are still doing [what they’ve always done] because that’s what they were brought up to do.”

“Emergencies happen, and how you respond to them is unknowable until you’re in it,” he told me. “We’re seeing this dramatized in a very literal way right now. This is just the reality. It forces you to interrogate a little more closely what really matters and what you have and what the value is of the stuff you have. I don’t think there are easy answers… We are now closer to a point where people are really changing their lives in response to a turn in reality that none of us really predicted.”

And it’s a reality that doesn’t seem to follow any sort of neat narrative arc — rife though it currently may be with the kind of plot twists more often seen in fiction than real life. In this way, too, Leave the World Behind reflects contemporary times all too well: It offers no easy answers, no guide to what is needed to survive, no framework for doing what is right in a time of crisis. Alam said, “We’re trapped being the people that we are. And we’re trapped with our possessions… You only can do what you think is right. And it’s complicated to talk about that. Do any of us know how we will behave in the worst and least predictable circumstances? We tell ourselves we do, but we don’t.” 

This is the challenge, then, to both readers of this book and to people living in this world: What would you do if there were no end in sight? If there were no actual way to keep the world, in all its messiness, outside your home? Who would — who will — you be? Not so much at the end of the world, but as its ending — now.

“There’s no end to the story; we are still living the story,” Alam said. “And, I wish there were an end. But it won’t come on Election Day. It won’t come at the end of this year. It won’t come on January 21. It won’t come. The story goes on. And that’s hard to accept.”

Leave the World Behind is available for purchase, here.

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