Forethoughts: Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

Now here’s a work of fiction that I know absolutely nothing about; and I know even less about its author, Steven Amsterdam. However, I have it on very good authority that Things We Didn’t See Coming (Harvill Secker) is an unmissable debut, and I never like to miss out on anything that’s been labelled ‘unmissable’. Besides, this is one of the titles that’s in the running for the Newton First Book Award at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and seeing as I’m going to an event in which Steven Amsterdam is in conversation with the glorious Kevin Barry, I really want to do a bit of ‘prep reading’ beforehand. Before I do that though, I want to introduce Things We Didn’t See Coming in the form of these initial forethoughts.

So, I’ve established that Steven Amsterdam’s debut is a complete unknown to me, even to the point of not knowing whether it’s actually a novel or a short story collection. Certainly the book is split up into chapters, but each chapter has a title, and each chapter I’m told, reads as a stand-alone story. This immediately makes me think of David Vann’s 2009 ‘novel’ Legend of a Suicide (Penguin), where the debate about whether it’s a novel or a story collection still rages on. Thankfully however, I’ve managed to find an interview with Amsterdam on the Booktrust website, conducted by Evie Wyld, where it was agreed that the best term for his book was ‘a novel of stories’, so we’ll take that as gospel, and treat it as such. With that out of the way, let’s have a gander at the rather lengthy cover blurb, which may, as we all know, contain mild spoilers:

Opening on the eve of the millennium, when the world as we know it is still recognisable, we meet the nine-year-old narrator as he flees the city with his parents, just ahead of a Y2K breakdown. Next he is a teenager with a growing criminal, taking his grandparents for a Sunday drive. In a world transformed by battles over resources, he teaches them how to steal.

In time we see him struggle through strange, horrific, and unexpectedly funny terrain as he goes about the no longer simple act of survival – protecting squatters (while trying to sleep with them and steal from them) as a biblical rainstorm floods the land; travelling from disaster site to disaster site, giving out government grants to survivors while trying to find a little love; living the high-life in a three-way relationship with his girlfriend and a wealthy senator; leading adventure tours for the terminally ill. Despite the chaos of his world, he keeps his eyes on the exit door, his heart open and his mind on what he thinks is going to happen next.

Even as the world is spinning out of control, we learn that essential human impulses still hold sway – that we never entirely escape our parents, envy others’ success and, chiefly, that we crave love. Things We Didn’t See Coming is haunting and vividly imagined – a stunning, dark, and darkly comic debut.

When I read this blurb, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (Picador) immediately springs to mind. The post-apocalyptic setting, the travelling, the act of survival and protection, it all sounds a bit, well, ‘Roadey’ to me. However, I need to get such a notion out of my head straightaway. In his aforementioned interview with Evie Wyld, Amsterdam tells us that his Australian publisher told him that people may try to compare his book with McCormac’s cataclysmic novel, and they’d be wrong to. So, I’ve taken that thought right out of my head.

That said it’s clear that Things We Didn’t See Coming is set in a post-apocalyptic period (one not in the too distant future it seems), and it looks to tell the story of one man’s journey – both mental and physical – not only into adulthood, but also during the direst of times. It also looks as though we see a degradation in the character, as necessity begins to tear away at his morality, as one might expect. It all sounds fantastically interesting, in theory. Here’s hoping the same holds true in practise.

What’s really piqued my interest though is the suggestion that humour is a big part of Things We Didn’t See Coming. This for me is unique because I don’t think I’ve ever read anything vaguely dystopian, that could be described as funny (here’s were you lot pipe up and give me hundreds of examples :)), and so this is new territory for me. I’m particularly interested in discovering just how well Amsterdam has managed to inject humour into such a dire scenario. I guess it could go one of two ways. Either Amsterdam is going to thrill me with his genius wit, or he’s going to have me sitting poker-faced, desperate to reach the end of the book as soon as possible.

That leads me nicely on to Steven Amsterdam himself, and as I said at the outset I know nothing about this Melbourne-based writer aside from the fact that he is, well, Melbourne-based. Thankfully however, Toni Jordan has written a rather lengthy profile on the writer, which appeared in Melbourne’s The Big Issue magazine in the Spring of 2009. It would be wrong of me to completely plagiarise Jordan’s work to put you ‘in the know’ about Amsterdam, so I invite you to go and read the piece reprinted on Amsterdam’s website. For the lazy amongst you however (or those who want to steer clear of potential spoilers), I’ll summarise a few key bio points: Amsterdam was born and raised in the US and he has also lived and worked in Japan. However, a visit to Melbourne was to have a profound affect on him. He fell in love with the place, and he emigrated there for good in 2003.

Amsterdam has long held writer’s blood in his veins. His mother is a US-based literary agent and writing has long been encouraged in the Amsterdam household. Steven also holds a Masters in creative writing from Melbourne University, and a major in Far Eastern Studies, earned at Chicago University.

So as we can see, even from this short bio extract that Amsterdam is not only passionate about writing, he also has a love for traveling and culture too. I can only hope that much of Amsterdam’s traveling and cultural exposure has worked its way into his fiction. If it has, then Things We Didn’t See Coming is going to get really interesting, very quickly.

With little more to say, as is often the case when I scribe first impressions on debuts, I will close these forethoughts welcoming you to return in a week or so to read my final review on Things We Didn’t See Coming. Meantime, please check out the Steven Amsterdam links near the foot of this page. Oh and don’t forget, if you want to know how the upcoming Amsterdam/Barry event at EdBookFest turned out, then pop back soon after August 19th too, when I will be posting a full report on the event.

Harvill Secker | 5th August 2010 | £12.99 | PAPERBACK | 208 PP | ISBN: 9781846553660

Steven Amsterdam will be appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in a Newton First Book Award event with Kevin Barry, on Friday 19th August 3:30pm – 4:30pm. For ticket information and booking, please visit the event page on the EdBookFest website.

Find out more about Steven Amsterdam:

A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.

Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.

About Rob

Rob, a self-confessed bibliophile, is without any hope of rehabilitation. He gets unnaturally excited over anything book-shaped, and if book sniffing were a crime then he would have been locked up years ago (which wouldn't bother him in the slightest provided his cell was lined with books)