Michael Williams, in Melbourne's The Age, wrote of this award-winning, dazzling debut collection, "By turns horrific and beautiful . . . Humanity at its most fractured and desolate . . . Often moving, frequently surprising, even blackly funny . . . Things We Didn't See Coming is terrific." This is just one of the many rave reviews that appeared on the Australian publication of these nine connected stories set in a not-too-distant dystopian future in a landscape at once utterly fantastic and disturbingly familiar.
Richly imagined, dark, and darkly comic, the stories follow the narrator over three decades as he tries to survive in a world that is becoming increasingly savage as cataclysmic events unfold one after another. In the first story, "What We Know Now"--set in the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognizable--we meet the then-nine-year-old narrator fleeing the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. The remaining stories capture the strange--sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes funny--circumstances he encounters in the no-longer-simple act of survival; trying to protect squatters against floods in a place where the rain never stops, being harassed (and possibly infected) by a man sick with a virulent flu, enduring a job interview with an unstable assessor who has access to all his thoughts, taking the gravely ill on adventure tours. But we see in each story that, despite the violence and brutality of his days, the narrator retains a hold on his essential humanity--and humor.
Things We Didn't See Coming is haunting, restrained, and beautifully crafted--a stunning debut.
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.)
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February 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Things We Didn't See Coming by Steven Amsterdam
What We Know Now
For the first time, Dad is letting me help pack the car, but only because it's getting to be kind of an emergency. He says we've each got to pull more than our own weight. Even though we're only going to Grandma and Grandpa's farm, he's packing up the kitchen with pasta, cans of soup, and peanut butter--plus the toolbox and first-aid kit. Carrying a carton past the living room, I see Cate there, trying not to pay attention. "Almost done, Cate," I tell her.
"I'm your mother. Call me by that name," she says.
I say, "Mother."
My job is to bring everything out to the car. We'll load it all up when I'm done. He parked in front of our building and put orange cones down on the road on either side of it two days ago. None of the neighbors said a word and he asked me not to make a big deal. The closeness makes it easy to keep a lookout on our stuff, while I'm running up and down the two flights of steps. No one's on the street when I step outside so I go up for another load.
The Benders on the third floor went away the day before Christmas, but Dad said he wanted to wait until the day of New Year's Eve to maximize preparation. He says this is a special new year and we're taking special measures. He says this year I have to stay up until after midnight.
Because he's still inside organizing boxes and Cate is just turning pages and not looking up on purpose when he drags them past her, I decide to stay out of their way. To help out, though, I packed up all the batteries from all my games and my portable radio because Dad says they would be useful.
While it's OK for me to hold the key, I'm not allowed to start the car. I think about turning it in the ignition and then saying that I was just checking the fuel gauge, which is all right. But I might get in trouble because I already know he's been to the gas station to fill up, not to mention we've got two big red jugs of gas in the back of our station wagon. Cate knows I know about it because I asked her. She said to just be patient.
I'm sitting on the car, guarding our stuff and scratching at a chip in the maroon paint between my legs, when Milo from downstairs comes out. He acts like he's running out to get to the store before it closes. Then he sees me and slows down and starts asking questions. This is what he always does and it makes my back go up like a cat. Where are we going? How come we're leaving? What am I going to be doing with my lame grandmother at midnight? (He's twelve and is going to a party with friends.) I answer as quickly as possible, keeping an eye on our stuff, not because I think Milo's going to take it, but because I'm trying to figure out why Dad packed all the kitchen knives. Cate sure doesn't know about that or she wouldn't be keeping so quiet right now.
Milo finally says what he's wanted to say since he saw me in the window and came downstairs and it's this: His father, who works in computers, is going to make 125 grand tonight, because he's going to stop blackouts and everything from happening. Once he tells me this, he hangs around a minute, looking at our suitcases and our car. It makes the stuff look bad somehow. He raises his eyebrows at me and goes back inside. He wasn't going to the store.
I know what a grand is because Milo's always telling me how much his father makes (a lot). My grandmother said not to use the word, because it makes me sound like a little gangster.
Finally, Dad comes out dragging the last thing, the cooler, and he's got a bag of vegetables balanced on top of it.
"We're bringing vegetables to a farm?" I ask.
"Just give me a hand."
He doesn't say much about my arrangement of our stuff on the street, but begins right away loading it. He's got that look that means I shouldn't bother him, but I tell him what Milo told me about the 125 grand. He doesn't look at me but he laughs and asks me where Milo's father is going to be working tonight. I say that I think it's the same place he usually does, in an office downtown. Dad shakes his head and says, "He's a dead man."
Cate steps out into the cool air, with her bright blue wheelie bag, which looks funny and small considering what Dad is busy cramming into the trunk. She looks up and down the block to see who's watching. The rest of the street looks normal. I hold up my saggy backpack to show her how little I'm bringing, and then she tells me to get my jacket on. She wheels her bag over to Dad, who's sticking cans of tuna fish around all of our stuff. Cate stares at him like she's watching a dog digging a hole that's way too deep.
She gets really close to him and asks, "You sure you don't want to just stick around and knock over a bank when things get crazy?"
He laughs like he doesn't think it's funny.
"How can you knock over a bank?" I ask.
She smiles and tells me she's counting on me to be the only sane person tonight and possibly into the next century. I ask her again how you can knock over a bank, but she starts helping Dad. I stretch out on the backseat so I can listen to them.
Cate says, "There's no reason to be stressed right now. We're all together. We're doing everything to protect ourselves. We're taking all the precautions you wanted."
He keeps packing.
After they finish and Dad decides I can be trusted with the mini-fridge next to me ("That food is not for tonight, it's for the long haul"), we get on the road just as the sun is starting to go down.
Dad dodges cars quicker than usual as we make our way through streets of dressed-up people, some already drunk. In a few minutes, we swing up onto the expressway. Cate says, "Not much traffic for doomsday."
"Can you please let up on the sarcasm?"
Cate shuts down and nobody says anything for a while.
When we're out of the city, she puts on the radio. Pretty soon, we're on country roads, more than halfway there. On the radio, people in London are getting ready for a wild party. I say that it's great that one night can make people have fun all over the world. She agrees and says to Dad, "London Bridge still seems to be standing. That's a good sign, isn't it?"
This makes Dad quiet and angry. She looks at his face for half a minute, then looks out the window. We zip past farms that are dark and farms with lights on and cars parked all over their driveways.
Dad, talking like she's not there, tells me that the world is large and complicated, with too many parts relying on other parts and they all octopus out. Then he starts talk- ing like he's writing one of his letters to the editor, going into stuff I don't understand but have heard a lot of times before. "Our interdependence is unprecedented in history. It's foolish."
I wish I was on a plane over everything. We'd be flying west, going through all the New Year's Eves, looking down just as they happen. I'd have to stay awake for twenty-four hours of nighttime, but I'd be looking out the little window and watching ripples of fireworks below, each wave going off under us as we fly over it. I start to talk about this, but then decide to save it for Grandma. Dad doesn't think planes are safe today either.
Cate puts her hand behind Dad's head to squeeze his neck, which means she wants to help him. "What else can we do for you, babe? We're set if anything goes wrong. If it doesn't, we'll have a quiet night of it with my parents. It's all right now. All right?" She looks at me so I can also tell him that we'll be safe. I nod to mean yes, but don't say anything out loud because I'm not sure if it's what he wants me to say or if it's even true.
"What do you think?" He looks at me through the rearview mirror. We both have green eyes. Sometimes, he says, it's like looking in a mirror.
Just then, we bump into the car ahead of us. Not a big bump, a touch, enough to scare everybody. I'm not wearing a seat belt so I get knocked into the back of Dad's seat and a can of tuna fish shoots over onto my seat. It's nothing serious. Cate reaches her hand back to me and grabs my knee to make sure I'm all right. Once it happens I realize that while I was looking at Dad I also saw the car slowing down in front of us, but it all happened so fast I couldn't even call out for us to stop.
The car we hit pulls onto the gravel and we follow close behind like a kid trailing a teacher to the principal's office. Dad says, "Shit!" and punches the button to turn off the radio.
Cate suddenly lets him have it. "Don't blame the radio. It's because you've been so paranoid and scattered that this happened." Here she's talking about something else. "We'll get through the other side and promise me that you'll be better? Promise me." He doesn't say anything. She sinks back and says to herself, "It would just be so nice if things would work again."