Monday, 29 October 2012

Things We Didn't See Coming, by Steven Amsterdam

Things We Didn’t See Coming follows a nameless narrator as he navigates his way through the 21st century. It begins on the eve of the millenium, the narrator a nine-year-old boy torn between his father, who is panicking and paranoid about the Y2K bug, and his mother, who is trying to maintain a semblance of normality. Chapter by chapter, the story moves through the following thirty or so years, jumping about five years at a time, as he encounters an increasingly devastated world.

The overall feeling I took away with me after finishing Steven Amsterdam’s debut was one of bleakness. The chapters are peopled with floods and drought, plagues and cancer, medical advancements and societal deterioration. Nevertheless, the blurb on my copy describes it as mesmerising, and this is a description I would have to agree with. I had to keep reading to find out what was going to happen next - would he find peace and contentment? Would he be able to stop moving,? Would the world sort itself out? Would I ever learn the bigger picture?

Ultimately the bigger picture is not revealed. This is one man’s story and, as thus, it is highly biased toward his lone perspective. Consequently, there is never a clear outline of the state of the country or its government, or an explanation of why the narrator is caught up in these devastating events. Only the ‘how’ as he sees it is covered: its the way of the world he is living in, its impossible to escape, and he is simply trying to find the best way to survive. I can only assume the ‘why’ is that this is a world racked by climate change.

Even the ending is ambiguous and left open to interpretation. It’s strange that sometimes, when reviewing books that I didn’t massively enjoy, thinking about how they are put together, I find myself awed by the author’s approach, their technique and story building. Although I certainly didn’t dislike Things We Didn’t See Coming, it was so overwhelmingly bleak that I couldn’t really categorise it as an enjoyable reading experience. But: it is well written and is interesting and has made me think. From a writer’s perspective I find it has a lot of value.

This is a book that has been likened to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (which is, incidentally, incredible), and I can see the link: a desolate world with little to hope for. Yet somehow The Road leaves you with a feeling of hope, and the love between the man and his child is heartbreakingly beautiful and pure. Because these positive emotions are stronger, so the feelings of tension and danger and anticipation are stronger. Things We Didn’t See Coming doesn’t quite manage to strike the same line - even though the world still functions (in The Road it does not), it is more depressing. Our narrator seems permanently lonely and struggling, even when he has a partner. The only hope I have is that the other citizens of the narrator’s world have a more hopeful and love-filled tale to tell.

Things We Didn’t See Coming is certainly one to add to anyone’s wish-list of apocalyptic fiction. As someone who is fairly obsessed with this particular genre, as well an interest in environmental catastrophe, I am left thinking of a small speech the narrator’s father makes in the opening chapter. Although he is referring to Y2K, its a speech that, to me, resonates very strongly when put in the context of climate change: “This whole thing is symbolic, symbolic of a system that’s hopelessly shortsighted, a system that twenty, thirty years ago couldn’t imagine a time when we might be starting a new century. That’s how limited an animal we are... We are arrogant, stupid, we lack humility in the face of centuries and centuries of time before us... What we know now is that we didn’t think enough. We know we aren’t careful enough and that’s about all we know.” (pg. 22-23) Should we be afraid?

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