Rumaan Alam on the Pleasures of Fictional Snooping

Posted on 7th June 2021 by Mark Skinner

Packed full of paranoia, mutual suspicion and game-changing twists, Rumaan Alam's Leave the World Behind is that rare thing; an addictive page-turning thriller that also manages to say profound and insightful things about the twenty-first-century condition. In this exclusive piece, Alam reveals his predisposition for snooping and how such a trait can be a benefit to all novelists. 

I’ve always been a snoop. Perhaps you have to be to write fiction, or perhaps I use my vocation to excuse my predilection for minding other people’s business. As a child, one of my favorite books was Harriet the Spy—in which the title heroine spies on neighbors and strangers and classmates, recording pitiless observations of them in her notebook. I recognized something of myself in Harriet at eight; even now, as an adult, it’s a book that describes to me some part of what I aim to do in fiction.

Like Harriet, when I go out in the world, I listen and look, and try to imagine the story of people who are not me. I eavesdrop on one half of a stranger’s telephone conversation. I try to guess what she’s talking about. I decide it’s her work, so then I try to imagine what her job is. Who is on the other end of the phone, and how do these two people feel about one another? Sometimes I think there’s a whole novel in what I overhear and what I cannot.

There’s a telephone conversation like this one—a woman and a colleague—in the first chapter of Leave the World Behind. It’s not central to the plot but it is important, to me, anyway, as an act of imagination, in trying to explain who the book’s protagonist, Amanda, is. That mystery (and other people always are a mystery, I think) is somehow revealed in this conversation on which readers can eavesdrop. The reader hears her talk and gets to decide who she is.

When errands take me to the grocery store, I love to study what my fellow shoppers have chosen— why is this woman buying so many packages of paper towels; what does this man intend to do with that container of coconut milk? There’s a story there, I think, even if it’s one I’m just inventing.

There’s another moment, also early in the novel, in which we follow Amanda to the grocery and are told about the things she buys. This is one of the more autobiographical things I’ve written, insofar as my family, like the one in this book, goes on holiday to Long Island, and one of the first orders of business is a run to the shop, where I buy almost everything Amanda buys. (Both of my children, however, eat cilantro without complaint.)

A person is not their groceries, of course. But we live under the system of capital, and the story of what we buy is in some ways the story of the self. The book places the reader where I am—watching, observing, trying to guess who this person is. It also places me where Amanda is, buying overpriced coffee filters made of recycled paper and feeling virtuous about it. 

Maybe this is the pleasure of reading. We get to indulge a desire to eavesdrop and judge, but it’s not impolite, because the people aren’t real. Harriet studied the people around her because she, like every child, simply wanted to understand the world. Maybe a novel can provide the same thing for us, no matter how old we are. I’m an adult, after all, but still barely understand the world.


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