Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdam

...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 on 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 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.

In an attempt to take a break from my normal reading fare (i.e., more paranormal stuff), I decided to run through my I-want-to-read-this-someday-down-the-road list and see if anything looked good. This seemed to fit the bill - definitely not supernatural, and short to boot. I placed my reserve and when it came, I checked it out thinking I might eventually get around to it.

It didn't take long to start reading it, and once I started, I found I couldn't stop. There's something about this book, something that compelled me to keep reading. It's an odd format - nine "stories" that are more like snapshots of the narrator's life at different times over 30 years. Luckily, the stories appear sequentially, so there's no jumping around in time. But it's still strange to read about someones life like this; I found myself wondering how he got to where he was in each story. It's stories without background, if you will. And you never do learn the name of the narrator, so he could be just about anyone.

The scenes follow the narrator after the world takes a complete nose-dive on New Year's Eve, 1999. Remember the whole Y2K fiasco? Well, in this book, the fearful were absolutely right to worry - the planet evidently cannot survive the transition to the year 2000. The narrator is taken to his grandparents house by his parents, his mother being a naysayer and his father being a true believer. Obviously, this will cause problems down the road for his parents, and indeed, when he visits them in later stories, they are no longer together. His grandparents make an appearance again in one of the stories (one of the more touching entries), along with crazy weather, the flu-like plague (which reminded me quite of bit of Stephen King's Captain Trips illness from "The Stand"), and other challenges the narrator faces.

It's a strange work, but the point is, it works. I thought the character development was quite good considering that it's not done in the typical fashion; I wanted to find out if the narrator was going to survive. I also thought some of the peripheral characters were interesting and well-done, too, no small feat when they make such short appearances. It's a good little book, and I truly believed that some of this gloom-and-doom world could happen. I'm curious to see what Amsterdam does next.

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