Leave the World Behind and a Strange Omniscience
Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind is about two families who are thrown together as the world is ending. The precise nature of the disaster is never revealed; we only know it's bad.
I want to talk about how the particular style of narration works to unsettle the reader.
It's a free-associative, omniscient narrator, which means it can enter any character's headspace at any time. The story begins with a white family of four (parents: Amanda and Clay; children: Archie and Rose) taking a simple vacation in a rented house, and we get inside each of their heads.
But there's something unique about the voice. It doesn't give direct thoughts so much as summaries of them. This narrator knows what every character is thinking and often chooses to tell us. But it can't seem to help processing thoughts for us, often judging them and adding commentary. For example, when Amanda takes a work call, the narrator tells us: "The call was a relief. She wanted her colleagues to need her as God wants people to keep praying." So we get to learn how Amanda thinks and feels, but we're getting someone else's take on those thoughts and feelings.
It's also a sprawling voice, one that will leave the room to finish its comparisons. For example:
Archie was sixteen. He wore misshapen sneakers the size of bread loaves. There was a scent of milk about him, as there was to young babies, and beneath that, sweat and hormone. To mitigate all this Archie sprayed a chemical into the thatch under his arms, a smell unlike any in nature, a focus group’s consensus of the masculine ideal.
That focus group is not known to Archie or thought about by any of the rest of the family. When the narrator makes these connections, it displays an expansive wisdom.
As must be obvious by now, this voice has opinions. It has personality.
And even when the content is more serious, this voice knows more than the characters:
Despite the portent of storm, it seemed like any other summer morning. Even the wind seemed to have abated. Indeed, had [Clay] looked—closer than it was possible for him to look—he’d have understood the stillness as a response to that wind. He’d have noticed that the insects had gone quiet; he’d have noticed that the birds were not calling. Had he noticed, he’d have noted that it was like those strange moments when the moon passed before the sun, that temporary shadow the animals did not understand.
Even though free-associative ability (mind hopping) is established early, the narrator chooses not to use it much in chapters 2–4, instead sticking with one character for long stretches at a time. The voice is still clever—and the cleverness still comes from a separate personality than the character it aligns with—but it starts to feel more like a dueling third-person limited voice with a bit of psychic distance.
This matters because when the voice starts free-associating again—when it starts hopping from brain to brain to brain—it is unsettling.
There are moments in chapter 5 when it’s not clear whose thoughts the voice is relating. “Rose wanted to watch a cartoon, and Archie was secretly comforted by animation—wistful for his own youth!” Are we jumping into Rose’s thoughts and then immediately into Archie’s? Or is Amanda guessing the thoughts of both her children? I think, really, it is the narrator, up to old tricks, summarizing all minds in one sentence. But after the easy and safe separation of the previous chapters, it's jarring.
And that psychic disturbance signals, I think, that something strange is about to happen.
In chapter 7, there is a late-night knock at the door and two strangers arrive—an older Black couple (G.H. and Ruth), who claim to be the house's owners. The scene is frightening—not because anything bad happens, and not even because we distrust the strangers, but because we know how deeply Clay and Amanda distrust them. We know the minds of these white vacationers pretty well by this point. We've seen them have racist thoughts. They know these thoughts are wrong, but can’t suppress them.
SPOILER: Ruth and G.H. are not sinister. They own the house and only want to be safe there. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to calculate the best means to seem safe.
Alam uses this fact to create incredible tension. He also capitalizes on the narrator's particular style to create uncertainty about where some thoughts originate, which really dials up the mood of distrust and fear.
Let's look at some examples.
Clay unbolted the lock and pulled open the door. What was he expecting?
The interrogatory light of the porch revealed a man, black, handsome, well proportioned though maybe a little short, in his sixties, with a warm smile. It was funny, how quickly the eye could register: benign, or harmless, or instantly reassuring. He wore a rumpled blazer, a loosened knit tie, a striped shirt, those brown pants every man over thirty-five wears. He held up his hands in a gesture that was either conciliatory or said Don’t shoot. By his age, black men were adept at this gesture.
“I’m so sorry to bother you.” He sounded as people rarely did when saying those words: sincere. He knew how to put on an act.
Because it's Clay who has opened the door, it seems we must be getting his angle in this moment. He's the one assessing the man before him, and apparently finding him "benign" and "harmless." Or is that the narrator's assessment? A phrase like "those brown pants every man over thirty-five wears" matches the narrative voice we've experienced.
But look at the final line, “He knew how to put on an act.” The idea that G.H. is only acting signals that this stranger has something to hide. Who is thinking that? If it’s Clay, then we understand a threatening distrust of the man. But if it’s G.H., perhaps it's a clue that he is planning something awful.
Such a quick slide, from one brain to another, or maybe not, and neither trusting the other—my own head is spinning. It makes me reassess my attribution of the line about "benign, or harmless, or instantly reassuring"—maybe it was G.H. positioning himself.
Even if all of this is the narrator's assessment, spinning the calculation and suspicion together, it's telling about the moment and the way the two men are weighing each other. Still, it's odd that we only get that short phrase. We know how much this voice likes to elaborate.
In fact, the narrator does much less elaborating throughout scene, especially in these moments when G.H. or Ruth are noted as "acting" or "planning":
“Good evening." The man wanted to underscore that he was a gentleman. That was part of the plan.
"Good evening" comes from G.H., but what about the next sentences? The idea that G.H. is scheming is not reassuring. And if we’re getting his thoughts, why aren’t we also getting the rest of the plan? This leads me to think it’s really Clay showing his distrust.
Or, again, this could be the narrator's commentary, and I think it must be. But then what is the secret? Why is a plan needed at all? And why won't this narrator, who knows everything and loves to expound, tell us more? The sense that information is withheld makes the idea of a "plan" much more frightening.
Over and over, in more examples than I can fit, the narrator accentuates that both G.H. and Ruth are putting on an act. And despite a clear love of spinning out observations for paragraphs and inserting every bit of opinion and commentary, the narrator refrains from telling us why they put on this act.
The narrator's withdrawal in these moments is unsettling on its own. Our guide is less talkative and we feel a bit abandoned.
But I believe the narrator is doing something more complex, with multiple layers, and that different aspects of this layering will be apparent to different readers. The narrator first makes sure we see the white couple from both inside and outside. We get their thoughts, but they are not brought to us unfiltered. The narrator makes clear when their thinking is incorrect or unjust. Then the narrator brings us the calculations and planning of a Black couple who know from experience, from racism, and from their unusual current situation, that they have to be extra careful. They have to perform harmlessness in a way that the white family will never have to do. Seeing that play out is tense, in itself.
But the narrator is also careful that we see the calculation without seeing the full intent. We get commentary on the way G.H. and Ruth purposefully perform that they are benign and unthreatening but not the explanation for why.
And I think this is going to do different things for different readers, influenced by race and racist experiences.
Readers who have had the experience of needing to seem harmless will likely recognize what is happening much more quickly than readers who have not had that experience. And they'll identify with what is happening in a powerful way.
For the readers who don't know that experience—well, they are not being quickly reassured. They get to be fearful for a little while. Perhaps they fear the strangers at the door. Perhaps, like Amanda and Clay, they also feel guilt for fearing them.
The narrative style creates an additional layer of complicity. As a white reader, when I wonder who is thinking a particular thought, I am drawn into extra suspicion of these characters, and, more importantly, I'm made to notice the suspicion and wonder why I feel it. I'm made to examine how much of this suspicion has to do with race. This is far from comfortable—and it should not be comfortable.
Additionally, through the meshing of thoughts that could belong to anyone in the room, the narrator builds up a sense of distrust much stronger than would result by making clear the derivation of each. This helps all readers to understand the scene as potentially explosive. Every reader worries what will happen.
There's also just something frightening about the miss-match of thoughts and my inability to align each thought to a specific character, at least not with certainty. It creates a scene that is almost what I expect, but off in a subtle way that evokes the uncanny.