It’s the anxious eve of the millennium. The car is packed to capacity, and as midnight approaches, a family flees the city in a fit of panic and paranoid, conflicting emotions.
The ensuing journey spans decades and offers a sharp-eyed perspective on a hardscrabble future, as a boy jettisons his family and all other ties in order to survive as a journeyman in an uncertain landscape. By turns led by love, larceny, and a new sexual order, he must avoid capture and imprisonment, starvation, pandemic, and some particularly bad weather.
In Things We Didn’t See Coming, Steven Amsterdam links together nine luminous narratives through the mind of one peripatetic and resourceful wanderer who always has one eye on the exit door and the other on a future that shifts more drastically and more often than anyone would like to imagine.
Given that its nine linked stories are set in a postapocalyptic near future, the pleasure of Amsterdam's debut collection is surprising. Over the course of the book, just about every possible disaster assails the unidentified country in which the stories are set. Floods, drought, mob rule, and a virus that has one deranged character coughing up blood—each play a role in the disintegration of the world as we know it, and Amsterdam's narrator survives them all, first as a thief, later as a bureaucrat (which turns out to be not much different from a thief), and finally as a 40-year-old, cancer-ridden tour guide. Among the high points are “Dry Land,” in which the narrator encounters a drunken mother and her daughter clinging to each other in a cataclysmic flood, though each is more likely to survive alone; and “Cake Walk,” with a narrator who hides in a tree while a man infected with a deadly virus destroys his campsite. Though a couple of the later stories lack polish and punch, Amsterdam's varied catastrophes are vividly executed, while his resilient narrator's travails are harrowing. (Feb.)
In his award-winning debut volume of connected short stories, Amsterdam takes his lead from the apocalyptic speculations that grew more ominous by the minute as 1999 drew to a close. We enter the post-Y2K world through the mind's eye of an everyman in the megalopolis, with free-floating carcinogens and immune systems gone wild. The book opens with our narrator as a precocious back-talking teenager, and the subsequent chapters/stories spin out over the next 20 years. In a later story, titled "Predisposed," our narrator is thrust by government dictate into the role of surrogate father to a teenage boy who resembles his younger self. It sounds like TV land, but soon we say good-bye to the known universe: "An only child with twenty-seven parental figures now, he even looks precious. Years of nighttime farming duties have left his skin bone white. To highlight the effect, he conned someone into bringing a eumelanin supplement back from the city...." Has this millennial vision brought us face to face with a Michael Jackson clone? That's the scariest thought of all. VERDICT The author, a native New Yorker transplanted to Australia, enters the literary world with a full-blown talent that can't be stopped. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/09.]—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Bookseller and Publisher
“FIVE STARS. This is the first novel released by Sleepers Publishing… and an inspired choice. Things We Didn’t See Coming is an assured piece of writing by Amsterdam, and will appeal to lovers of good literary fiction.”
“Bold, original and sneakily affecting, Things We Didn’t See Comingis about keeping your head in the midst of an apocalypse and how to make a decent life out of whatever’s left over. It’s about finding something to cling to when everything around you falls apart, and then finding a way to let go of even that. And it’s about accepting that it’s all going to end and striving to connect, to love and be loved anyway.”
“Celebrate. Here is a voice both authentic and absorbing. A brilliant choice for Sleepers’ first venture into the novel.”
“The book as a whole is a small marvel, overflowing with ideas. Scary, funny, shocking and touching by turns, it combines the readerly pleasures of constant reorientation with the sober charge of an urgent warning. Things We Didn’t See Coming refracts our life-and-death fears through those moments of human contact where they are most keenly felt; some of those fears are eternal, some shockingly new.”
“Breathtakingly strange… Things We Didn’t See Coming is the kind of book that can inspire us to think differently about the world and entertain us at the same time.” —Washington Post “A smart, snappy collection of Apoca-lit now… It’s a clever structure and Amsterdam works it fabulously well.”
“A treat to read—playful, intelligent, and intriguing.”
The Scotsman Book Supplement
“Moving and poetic”
“There is a satisfying tingle in imagining an Armageddon just round the corner. But Amsterdam also gives his book an emotional heart; it lies in the contrast between the narrator’s very ordinary emotions – jealousy, fear, the desire to belong – and his extraordinary circumstances… A memorable debut.”
Time Out New York
“Even in the blackest scenes Amsterdam’s gift for mordant humour keeps the reader entertained and depression at bay… What makes Things We Didn’t See Coming such an impressive novel-and very impressive debut-is the playfulness of the writing contrasted to the grimness of the subject matter. In Amsterdam’s hands the apocalypse sounds like it might be fun.” — Sunday Times (London) “Disturbing and deeply smart… darkly comic and full of surprises.”
Number Of Pages: 174
Published: March 2009
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books
Dimensions (cm): 20.2 x 13.8 x 1.4
Weight (kg): 0.168