Rumaan Alam’s Leave the Word Behind is a literary fiction novel that was published in 2020. Although it was written before the coronavirus pandemic, it encapsulates many of the anxieties of 2020, the pandemic, lockdown and Black Lives Matter — trying to figure out the weirdness of things.
The novel has received critical acclaim but a mixed reception by readers on the internet. A significant number of online reviews have complained that it’s boring and even going as far as giving it the dreaded DNF (did not finish).
Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that it’s been talked about as an ‘end of the world novel’. This immediately brings expectations and associations with science fiction genre storytelling. Leave the Word Behind isn’t a post-apocalyptic or pre-apocalyptic genre narrative. It’s something else.
The ‘end of the world story’ that features in The Road, or Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826) pre-dates Gothic fiction. It goes back into the realm of fantastic religious writings about the end of things and final judgement. I just didn’t get any of that feeling in Leave the Word Behind.
So, what is it?
I think it’s a darkly comical character study of people reacting to the perception of threat, and struggling to work out what their reaction should be, or even if they should feel threatened. It’s about social assumptions, group membership, prejudice, race and class — loosely wrapped up in a vaguely sci-fi theme that’s only really there to increase the stakes.
The setup of people renting out an Airbnb, with mysterious things happening, communications going dead, and a black couple turning up on the doorstep feels quite theatrical to me. The situation is metaphorical. I never got the feeling that I was in a genre thriller. This was more of a psychological, a philosophical and social observation kind of experience.
I did really enjoy reading Leave the Word Behind. The hardback book published in the UK by Bloomsbury was beautifully designed and typeset. This is one of those books that people enjoy because it provides that literary fiction reading experience. It’s beautifully written, so much so that it feels as if it was effortless to write (which I’m sure it wasn’t). It’s a bit like drinking a bottle of Ola Dubh 12 Year Old Barrel Aged Craft Stout, instead of a can of Sainsbury’s Basic Lager.
The word that strikes me about the writing is, charm. It really charmed me. It deals with racism in a dryly comic way that’s thought-provoking while never yelling at the reader about how angry it is. Maybe there’s something of the film Get Out about it and that comedy of awkwardness? And, although it’s a very different kind of novel, its insightful honesty reminded me of Ben Lerner’s excellent Leaving the Atocha Station. The enclosed world and subtext of ‘personal issues’ was reminiscent of the setup in the computer game Firewatch — stange things are happening, but you’re not sure what exactly.
The goodness starts in the opening paragraph of the novel:
Well, the sun was shining. They felt that boded well — people turn any old thing into an omen.
There’s another line a few pages on when Clay has a cigarette where the mere act of a character having a smoke becomes a philosophical conversation:
He retrieved his cigarettes from the glove box, wincing at the gravel. He sat on the front lawn in the shade of a tree and smoked. He should feel bad about this, but tobacco was the foundation of the nation. Smoking tethered you to history itself! It was a patriotic act, or had once been, anyway, like owning slaves or killing the Cherokee.
It’s very rare for an exclamation mark to make me laugh, but that one did. And if Clay's thoughts, represented here in free indirect speech, aren’t darkly comic, I don’t know what is.
Part of what makes Leave the Word Behind work so well as social observation and a set of character studies is that it’s written in the third person omniscient. This offers a high density of information to the reader and it allows the writer to move around the space. And yet it also feels incredibly intimate.
Another saving point about the novel is that it never pretends to be something that it isn’t. It’s always true to itself as a work of literary fiction. It never promises to turn into a genre action story. Because of that, I never felt deceived in the same way that Station Eleven left me feeling tricked (the promise of it’s genre style opening turned into a literary fiction novel).
The big quandary for me was how to rate this book. Brilliant or interesting? My verdict probably reflects more about me and my interests and priorities. I’m heavily slanted towards an accessible and fun reading experience with an emphasis on the story, rather than beautiful prose and intricate character observations.
And that’s the problem, I could have put this book down at any point and carried on with my life. It’s good, but I wasn’t immersed in it. It wasn’t addictive. I didn’t have to know what happens next.
John Lanchester’s The Wall for example (another literary fiction novel that uses a science fiction wrapper), like Leave the Word Behind, is successful because of its psychological and tonal atmosphere. There was some plotted action in The Wall and it worked with the overall ambience and fable-like quality of the story. More importantly, I really wanted to know what happened to the characters.
Leave the Word Behind in comparison feels a bit one dimensional. It’s not really taking place at the end of the world it’s taking place in a metaphorical everyday. That’s the whole point. As a result, the ‘end of the world wrapper’ feels extraneous and artful. But without it, would the story be as intriguing?