Like any sensible reader for whom Christmas triggers profound grief over the death of a holiday-adoring loved one, I began Christmas morning 2020 by finishing up a dystopian novel, Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind.
You can find a proper review from NPR or the New York Times, but I agree with the positive opinions that Alam crafted an unusual and interestingly written work of fiction. It isn’t an easy book to read due to the subject matter, but it wasn’t off-putting to me for the usual gruesome reasons I dislike most horror. Gird yourself for a downward spiral of darkness if you dive in, but Leave the World Behind is well worth reading.
What follows is a quotation from near the end of the novel, but I don’t believe reading it out of context constitutes a spoiler for the plot. I’m putting it “below the fold” in case any reader feels differently and prefers to stop here.
Rather than discussing the book generally, I want to shine a spotlight on one passage from the end of Chapter 38. It brought me up short on Christmas morning. I read it, turned the page, then turned back. I highlighted the text as I typically do* when a phrase, sentence, or paragraph strikes me as notable. Then I went one step further: I actually wrote a title and a stub of a sentence to remind me that I wanted to post about this passage here on Really Wonderful Things. I found it that compelling.
This passage hit me as the most relevant words I’d read in 2020.
“All that meant anything was this—people, in the same place, together.”
“She wanted to know that her child and her grandchildren were safe, but of course, Ruth would never know that. You never know that. 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. This was what was left to them.”
—Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind
My follow-up thought, however: Alam missed the mark a little, with the end of his paragraph. He says, “This was all that was left to them.”
I disagree. It wasn’t all that was left to them; it was all they ever really had. They simply hadn’t noticed before their world fell to pieces.
COVID-19 has impressed this reality upon most of us in 2020. Certainly the message was brought home to me, over and over throughout the year, then again with great force this holiday season. Relationships aren’t just important to human lives, they are the very thing that makes human life worth living.
Of course, price gougers and profiteers seem to have internalized a different message, but I suspect even the bulk of those will see the error of their ways at the end(s) of their world(s), whether that denouement is personal (death) or generalized (the end of all life as we know it) as in Leave the World Behind.
Life’s greatest lessons are like that; something so monumental that it astounds the implacable can be somehow still invisible to a spirit as yet unready to be moved.
Bidding a not-so-fond farewell to 2020, this passage epitomizes my experience. Alam put voice to my lesson learned: “All that meant anything was this—people, in the same place, together.”
Best wishes for a more convivial 2021 to one and all. Happy New Year!
* Most often, I then forget all about having made this effort, though I have dozens of Kindle notes and even more iPhone snapshots—with keywords “book” and “quote”—just in case I ever get serious or scholarly with any of this stuff.