Rumaan Alam on the Psychic Usefulness of a Tangible Disaster
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
On withholding the truth from his characters:
It’s true that the book declines to answer what’s happened. Something has happened in New York City, and that is why these people have arrived at this house. The first thought in the book is that actually nothing has happened, that it’s all a misunderstanding, that all will be well with the world once we know more information. They don’t have cell phone or internet service, but they do have electricity. So they feel that whatever’s happening can’t be so bad. There may have been a power outage in New York City, but we can still turn on the dishwasher here in the country. And then there are increasingly signs and suggestions that make them understand that maybe something is wrong, and that maybe the thing that’s wrong is easily explicable. But then the narrative breaks, and there’s an omniscient perspective that moves away from the characters. The book begins to confide in the reader in ways that it can’t be frank with the characters. The characters have to go through this particular agony, but the reader needs more information.
On the tangibility of the pandemic:
There are so many shades of “we don’t know.” The pandemic provides a useful and tangible thing to hold on to. To say, at last, my discomfort around police violence, around the increasing polarization of American and global politics, around what feels like the end stages of capitalism or the end stages of the democratic experiment in the United States, at least coronavirus is this tangible thing that we can look at and say this is definitely happening. We’re going to put on our masks and stay inside and close the schools and movie theaters and sporting arenas and actually change the way life functions in response to this bad thing that is happening. It’s hard to look at any cultural product right now without thinking about coronavirus and what it has laid bare in this society about its inequity and, in many ways, its failure.
This episode is brought to you by Amazon Publishing and the new short story collection Nothing Like I Imagined by Mindy Kaling. Download today at amazon.com/mindystories.
Rumaan Alam is the author of Rich and Pretty and That Kind of Mother. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Elle, New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Wall Street Journal, The Rumpus, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. He studied at Oberlin College and lives in Brooklyn, New York.