Things We Didn't See Coming
 by Steven Amsterdam

First Collection

Awards: Winner, Age Book of the Year Award 2009;  short listed, UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing; longlisted, Guardian First Book Award 2010

"The future is a hospital, packed with sick people, packed with hurt people, people on stretchers in the halls, and suddenly the lights go out, the water shuts off and you know in your heart that they’re never coming back on. That’s the future, my friend."

Reviewed by Sara Baume

I like to envision the future as a cheerful place. I like to think there’ll be an end to war and famine and a cure for cancer and that humankind will learn to live without doing damage to one another and to the animals and birds and fish with which we share our brittle planet.

It’s a noble forethought, but also incredibly dull. And if I ever manage to write a book about the general loveliness of my utopian future, I expect it would garner significantly less attention than the one Steven Amsterdam has written about hunger and upheaval and destruction and woe.

When Things We Didn’t See Coming was originally published in Australia in 2009, Amsterdam explained how, in interview with Megan Burke for her Literary Life blog, "the book is me trying to imagine all the things we’re supposed to be worried about and picturing what it would be like to live through them."

The collection of interconnected stories borne of all his studious doom-mongering kicks off on New Year’s Eve, 1999, when the unnamed narrator is just a boy and the world which surrounds him is just about as we remember it. The eight pieces which follow span the first half of the twenty-first century, each relating a new episode of his circuitous life. As the boy becomes a teenager and then a man, there are inevitable moments of loneliness, illness, hunger and heartbreak, but they are back-dropped and intensified by eras of flood, famine, fire and pestilence. There are a great deal of things to worry about indeed.

Yet Amsterdam’s alternating visions of dystopia never stretch too far beyond the bounds of plausibility. There are no alien invasions or flesh-eating robots. On the contrary, some of the scenarios which take place in the wake of natural disaster or under the jurisdiction of an oppressive regime come eerily close to describing an existing daily reality for citizens of certain countries the book is unlikely ever to reach. The greatest leap of faith I found I had to make as a reader was in attempting to understand the narrator’s immense stockpiles of resilience.

Regardless of the cliff-hanger at which each story leaves him: be he starved, wounded, exhausted, jilted or bereft, with each new story, the elastic man never fails to begin again. He eats another rat or hijacks another vehicle or re-attaches himself to another viciously manipulative woman. He beavers through and reinvents himself to face a fresh onslaught of horrible adversity. Repeatedly I asked myself why he didn’t just give up. In a world where "everyone else is on some pill for coping" the phenomenal perseverance of Amsterdam’s narrator simply doesn’t make sense. Unless, I suppose, the only way of thoroughly imagining "all the things we’re supposed to be worried about and picturing what it would be like to live through them" is to inflict them upon a character whom none of us could ever realistically be.

The narrator’s co-characters come and go and far too many of the ones who go have the potential to be considerably more interesting than the narrator himself. His father, for instance, only features in the first and last of the stories, but both times demonstrates an intriguing individuality of thought and depth of foresight. In Dry Land, there’s a spunky alcoholic lady squatting in an abandoned mansion surrounded by rising floodwaters and in Cake Walk, there’s a comedic plague victim who coughs his bloodied phlegm all over the narrator’s campsite. The only character to appear in more than two stories is the narrator’s occasional girlfriend, Margo, and she is the most outrageous of all. Margo is cold and crass and utterly untrustworthy, she drinks her own piss as though it were enjoyable. The change which comes over the narrator in her presence is too extreme to be believed. From an iron-willed and fearless wanderer, he is reduced to a simpering and subservient fool.

Not only is Amsterdam’s narrator never given a name, neither is the land across which the stories take place ever properly identified. There is only "Rural" and "Urban" and a few throwaway mentions of "Brownlee" and "Keaton". There is much evidence to suggest it’s North America: campervans, popcorn and swimming-pools are commonplace, and there remains throughout the skeleton of a society so liberal that some people rely heavily upon prescription medication while others set up communes according to the principles of "simply and reverently following nature’s plan." Nevertheless, I felt let down that Amsterdam had saved himself the effort of specifics. In her 1956 essay entitled Place in Fiction, Eudora Welty wrote that "fiction depends for its life on place. Location is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of 'What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?'' Throughout my reading of Amsterdam’s stories, I found myself continually distracted by these questions. I never wholly empathised with the narrator or felt at home within his world, and I suspect it was my relentless guessing which prevented the collection from ever really coming to life.

Considering the squalid subject matter of Things We Didn‘t See Coming, it is hard to avoid the comparison with Cormac McCarthy‘s unlikely bestseller, The Road. When I summon my memories of reading The Road, they are tiny, but forceful: a crunch of rubble underfoot, a smell of blackened flesh, a silhouette of leafless trees. Although the bald facts of the scenario are nowhere explained, such is the strength of detail that I have no difficulty understanding why McCarthy’s narrator keeps on keepin’ on. When Amsterdam’s narrator does occasionally pay attention to "the yellow light burning through" or a herd of deer like "shadow cutouts bounding across the black horizon" or the tragically pathetic way in which "Grandpa scratches his knee all day with a ruler", these references are altogether too cursory, and rarely so particular nor so poetic as to truly convince.

Read a story from this collection on The Guardian

Sara Baume is a freelance writer based in southern Ireland.  Her reviews, interviews, articles and stories have been published both online and in print, from HTMLGiant to The Stinging Fly literary magazine.

Sara's other Short Reviews: J D Salinger "9 Stories"

Louise Stern "Chattering"

Jan Woolfe "Fugues on A Funny Bone"
find something to read: reviews
find something to read: interviews
find something to read: categories
find something to read: back issues
competitions & giveaways

Steven Amsterdam was born and raised in New York, and now lives in Melbourne where he works as a psychiatric and palliative nurse.  Following the success of Things We Didn’t See Coming, he has since published a novel in Australia entitled What the Family Needed, which will soon be available in the UK.

Read an interview with Steven Amsterdam