Review: ‘Things We Didn’t See Coming’

thingsI would say Steven Amsterdam is one of my favourite Australian writers, but he was born and raised in America and I’m not sure which country he prefers to align himself with. Nevertheless, he shot up my list of favourite contemporary authors on the strength of his – in my opinion, criminally underrated – second novel, What the Family Needed, (my review of which can be found here).

Things We Didn’t See Coming, Amsterdam’s debut, caused a minor stir when it was published in 2009 by the then-fledgling independent publisher, Sleepers. The novel – and I use the term loosely; more on this later – received wide critical acclaim, and marked both Amsterdam and Sleepers as ones to watch.

Like its follow-up, Things We Didn’t See Coming is presented as a series of quests or episodes. Instead of chapters we have interconnected (though also self-contained) stories, some of which reference and build upon earlier instalments. It’s an unconventional way to write a novel – if this is, in fact, a novel (Junot Diaz’s seminal This is How You Lose Her follows a similar structure, though identifies itself as a short story collection). Whether novel or short story collection, it’s merely a matter of semantics and I didn’t dwell on it.

The story follows an unnamed protagonist from one hood to another (child to adult, that is) while looking at the way civilisation transitions after an unspecified (possibly Y2K-related?) apocalyptic event. Unlike in your typical apocalypse story, this civilisation endures, rather than collapses. There’s poverty, sickness and a return to living off the land, but this is not the scorched, uninhabitable landscape of King’s The Stand or McCarthy’s The Road. Though desperation ensues, this book is more about the protagonist’s desire to find purpose, and to live a rich, spiritually (though not religiously) fulfilling life. It’s not depressing or overly sentimental, but it is life-affirming. While civilisation hasn’t collapsed, it has regressed back to basics and, without the encumbrance of old fixed societal hierarchies, our protagonist – and humanity at large – is forced to redefine the reasons for carrying on.

Of course, these issues aren’t handled heavy-handedly; in fact, for an apocalypse story, Things We Didn’t See Coming is a surprisingly fun read. Despite unmentionable hardships, the characters never become bogged down with melancholia. Even in his pettiest moments, the protagonist has an underlying grace, which made him worth rooting for. Also helpful is that Amsterdam’s prose sparkles with assurance. It helps keep things buoyant, as does the lively cast of secondary characters (Juliet, Jeph and the ever-spirited Margo). Amsterdam seamlessly combines the sensibilities of both popular and literary fiction; he presents classic literary tropes, such as the exploration of the human condition, in a light and entertaining manner. He’s not necessarily a comic writer, but his stories are buoyant and expertly paced.

Having said all that, I have a major grievance to share. The episodic structure, which worked so well in What the Family Needed, felt horribly disjointed here. I give credit for the unconventional presentation, but such experiments should enhance the narrative to justify existing. Its only purpose here was to provide Amsterdam easy outs whenever he wrote himself into a corner. I assess books on their own merits; I’m not opposed to this episodic structure on principle – as I said, it worked wonders in What the Family Needed. My issue here is that Amsterdam resolutely refused to elucidate the nature of the apocalypse or the parameters of the world. Again, not a problem in and of itself; The Road follows a similar tact, whereby McCarthy deliberately withholds details about why the world has changed. In that book, and in this one, the reader is expected to take things as they are, despite the lack of explanations. It works in The Road because, really, the history of the world doesn’t matter; it’s not the heart of that story. But The Road isn’t a chameleon like Things We Didn’t See Coming.

The narrative in Things We Didn’t See Coming shifts at every interval. It’s not just that the world and main character develop in secret during the gaps between stories; it’s that whole plotlines are disregarded as quickly as they’re introduced. Every event in this book is rendered irrelevant by the proceeding story. I’m not finicky; I don’t need closure to enjoy a story. My favourite form, the short story, is often famously open-ended, but I do have my limits. Though enjoyable to read about, the world in Things We Didn’t See Coming felt thin and ill-defined. Instead of one comprehendible apocalyptic event, the world goes through many changes: floods, droughts, viral outbreaks, war of the classes, spikes in theft, oppressive governments, and more. It’s like Amsterdam wasn’t sure what tact to take, so he took them all. Individually, each thread is compelling, but none are given any follow-through. It’s difficult to invest in a situation when everything will inevitably be thrown to the wind come the next story. To make matters worse, the stories are only ever twenty-odd pages long, yet it takes up to six for the reader to find their bearings (‘The Forest for the Trees’ and ‘The Profit Motive’ were particularly obtuse).

The protagonist’s relationships with Margo and his father were the only arcs with any sort of resolution – and neither was particularly satisfying. I really think this book would’ve worked better had it been a series of contrasting apocalypse stories featuring different characters and situations, though set in the same world. I would’ve found it more palatable had I not been positioned to expect cohesiveness and traceable character development.

I don’t mean for this to sound overly negative: there was a lot to enjoy about Things We Didn’t See Coming. I suppose my own expectations about the structure are ultimately what let me down. Still, this is only Amsterdam’s debut; it’s unfair that I should hold it to the standard of his later work. This book is certainly worth checking out for those who want a unique take on the apocalypse.

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