Leaving the World was the sixth choice for our book club. Our perspectives were bound to differ, since I was the only one of us to have read Douglas Kennedy before (to tell the truth, I have read them all, in a French translation).

In Leaving the World, Jane Howard is the illustration of the fact that life is always changing, unpredictable, and can take us to unexpected places. As a small girl, raised by parents who spend their time arguing, Jane declares that she will never marry, and never have children… And as we all know, people who say “never” are often proved wrong by life…

Years later, Jane is writing a thesis and is in love with David Henry, her thesis advisor, a brilliant, but also married man. She is destined to a solid career in academia. But after David dies, Jane changes her mind on a whim, she abandons scholarly pursuits and decides to earn a lot of money working in a mutual funds company. And this is only one of the numerous path where life will take Jane. Only after a really tragic event in her life does she really decide to leave the world… But is such a thing even possible?

The first thing that struck my friends from the Book Club, is that each different chapter of Jane’s life could have been a novel in its own right. They both find it tedious and frustrating to be introduced to a milieu, to a cast of people with huge potential for interesting development (Trish from Freedom Mutual, or Theo, for instance), but who where dropped when Jane left her environment and moved on. I shared their opinion, and also realized that Leaving the World is not the novel to start with. Kennedy’s readers will have recognized in Leaving the World segments from all his other works. Therefore, the financial company is the background in The Job, the movie world appears, from the side of the viewer, in the Woman in the Fifth, and from the side of the professionals, in Temptation. The relationship with Theo recalls A Special Relationship, and many true life models for charismatic televangelists like Rev. Coursen appear in his non-fiction work In God’s Country. And there are probably other parallels that I haven’t spotted, owing to the fact that I read some of the novels a long time ago. It is as if Kennedy decided to incorporate every theme he ever wrote about to make his point about life leading us to unexpected places. The effect is weird and unsettling…

One interesting point is that, to a certain extent, Jane’s life very much reflects modern life, where people have to adapt, move away, change jobs, divorce, remarry, etc. Of course her circumstances are extreme, but that is also what makes the attraction of a Douglas Kennedy novel: the main character is always manhandled by Kennedy to the point of his or her limits. Kennedy shows how life is shifty and how, once ambition has raised somebody to the top, a reversal of fortune can as easily (more easily) pull the rug under his or her feet. But man (or woman) is resilient, and all his characters are fighters who don’t go down without a fight and who claw their way out of the hole they’ve been precipitated into… Here it is a little bit different since Jane is not driven by ambition to the extent of some of Kennedy’s other characters. But the rug is pulled nonetheless…

We also noticed Kennedy’s pessimism (which seems to me more noticeable with each novel), illustrating the Latin saying “Homo homini lupus est” (man is a wolf to man). Therefore, every environment where Jane evolves is a scene where people exercise their ambition and don’t hesitate to trip others in order to establish their own domination: in the finances business, of course, but also in academia, and even in libraries, an environment that wouldn’t a priori seem as ruthless as the others…

Why is every workplace a minefield of petty politics and smoldering resentment?

Not that he is more optimistic about relationships:

All domestic relationships become, one way or another, exercises in power

One of us pointed out how Jane’s attempt to leave the world was doomed from the beginning. Since she kept her bank account, and even used her CV to find a job, her attempt was bound to fail. Had she really wanted to leave, she pointed out, she could have become a waitress and remained anonymous. It is true that Jane’s leaving the world seemed half-hearted and more the result of impulsive and superficial acting (giving away clothes, giving orders to sell her apartment) than a real, deep, change. We reflected that the turn her life takes when she decides to leave the world is by no means more extreme than the different turns her life took before that. She still wanted to be able to use her brains and credentials to find an interesting job. Did Kennedy want to show that today, with Internet and the quick and widespread diffusion of information, leaving the world is not that easy? maybe… Did he also want to show us that we are who we are, and whatever impulsive decision we may take to make ourselves think otherwise, our true nature is always just beneath the skin?

The moments when Jane truly leaves the world, her life and herself are fleeting, these are the state of grace met by the truly contemplative and those who meditate, people detached from material contingencies, spiritual beings. As Kennedy shows, this is not a state of mind often met in the American people, living in a consumerist society. Hence, every character from a Kennedy’s novel, once they reach the bottom, in terms of poverty, immediately try to reestablish a comfortable environment for themselves. If not scandalously rich, the ex-wealthy become financially comfortable again, what they think of as happiness being connected to a certain level of money in the bank. Jane is no exception, but the only moments when she reaches true happiness are not when she settles down in a new furnished apartment, but on her first time in Canada, when she has almost nothing, nowhere to live and few possessions, and finds herself lost on the Matinique Beach. She feels:

A pure, undistilled sense of just living in the here and now; of being liberated from the complex narrative that was my life

Consumerism and (un)happiness are interesting interrelated themes for anybody who would wish to look deeper into Kennedy’s novels…

Last but not least, did we like the novel? my Book Club friends liked it in places, but found it depressing and, as I said, resented having to start all over again with Jane, when there would have preferred to dig deeper into a place and characters. As for me, I think I still can’t answer this question. At times, the book seemed to me as if Douglas Kennedy had risen one step above his usual writing: the reflections on some difficult issues, the impressive erudition, the depth of some of the main character impressed me. Leaving the World reminded me at times of a Paul Auster novel (Theo and Vern, with their collecting habits, and their attempt to get control over a senseless world by trying to be exhaustive in cataloguing movies/music, are very austerian characters). At other times, I was weary of the rollercoaster ride, and it just read like Douglas Kennedy on speed… So I’m still pretty much undecided…

Leaving the world is definitely not Kennedy’s best novel. To get acquainted with the author, I recommend The Pursuit of Happiness, State of the Union, The Big Picture, Temptation or The Job

Rating: 3,5/5